Is Drug Prohibition Causing Unnecessary Deaths in Australian Youth?

By Sahar Adatia & Jimmy Singh

Drugs are destructive. But drug prohibition is worse – and it’s doing little to protect young Australians from turning to illicit drug use.

Every year, some 400 Australians die from illicit drug use.

Thousands of others suffer from the detrimental health consequences of drug dependence, unsafe injecting methods and infections. Alongside them, their families are also suffering in a generation of increasing numbers of youth who are experimenting with illegal drugs.

We only need to recall the case of Sylvia Choi, the 25-year-old Sydney pharmacist who died at Stereosonic music festival on November 28, 2015, after overdosing on ecstasy. While Ms Choi lost her life, another woman was put in an induced coma, nine revellers were hospitalised, and another 120 were treated for drug abuse.

More recently, on February 22, 2018, a mass drug overdose among a group of students from Saint Stephen’s College in the Gold Coast caused seven boys, aged 14 and 15, to be rushed to hospital. The drug on the radar was believed to be Phenibut, an illegal anti-anxiety medication that produces similar effects to the party drug GHB. It was declared by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to be a prohibited substance.

It appears that drug usage has become a normal part of young Australians’ life-experience. The prohibition of these illegal substances is proving to be the poison slowly and unnecessarily killing them.

To reduce these destructive effects caused from prohibiting drugs, it’s arguably in the public interest to now focus on public health from another angle- by providing a controlled and safe environment for young people who decide to use drugs.

Australia’s prolific recreational drug use

Like many nations, in Australia, the use of illicit substances including ecstasy, cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines has been increasing among youth population in recent times.

This experimentation is becoming progressively integrated and accepted into the wider leisure and cultural consumption habits of young people, with drug use considered a product of curiosity and risk-taking.

In fact, according to the United Nation’s 2014 World Drug Report, Australia dubiously boasts the highest proportion of recreational drug users in the world, of which the peak rates of drug usage and drug-related persecution in any age bracket are found in our youth.

What this suggests is that Australia’s policy of drug prohibition has largely been ineffective in reducing the use of illicit drugs; nor has it been able to protect people from the harmful effects of drugs.

Evidently, in spite of ongoing efforts by drug law enforcement agencies – including the use of sniffer dogs at festivals and being tracked down at clubs – young people in Australia are continuing to engage with illicit drugs in vast numbers.

Youths are also trying out these substances despite the risks of not knowing what they are actually consuming.

Gold Coast incident begs this question – why did these kids try a drug they knew so little about? This arguably points to an inevitable consequence of the ongoing focus on drug prohibition. A shift in policy to focus to harm minimisation and safety may instead have seen a different outcome.

Aside from the social community problems, heavy penalties apply for drug supply charges in NSW.

Controlling and regulating the drug market

The idea of getting rid of the drugs problem by waging a war on those who use them is flawed. Put simply, this is because it doesn’t reduce drug taking.

It’s evident that no organisation or individual will ever be able to stop young people experimenting with drugs.

The reality is that for thousands of years now, across many countries and cultures, people have engaged in drug use. The chance of this practice changing any time soon is improbable.

Wasting limited resources on counter-productive law enforcement as a means to control the drug market is futile.

This leaves policy at a crossroads: Does it proceed down the path of blaming and criminalising drug users, or is it more beneficial to progress on a path of increasing the safety of those who will predictably engage in illicit drug use?

Arguably, more lives would be saved if current policies were reformed so that:

  • Health risks related to drug use could be appropriately monitored;
  • A more open and accessible environment focused on educating the youth to help them make informed decisions;

By controlling and regulating the drug market, many deaths could be avoided.

A British business magnate Sir Richard Branson has recurrently advocated the decriminalisation of all drugs. In 2015, he stated: “If I was running a business that was failing, and saw no signs of improvement, I would shut it down and try a new approach.”

Indeed, such thought has not been met without opposition. Dr Steven Gannon of the Australian Medical Association, for example, has backed the disapproval of the decriminalising or legalising of any illicit drugs, saying that, “We should not underestimate the harm that illicit drugs do every day in our community.”

Such opinion, however, does not address the harm that can be fundamentally heightened through the very act of prohibition.

A focus towards harm minimisation strategies

Over the last two decades, as the Australian community has become increasingly anxious about drug-related harm, a shift towards harm minimisation strategies have surfaced – particularly in its diversion from the criminal justice system.

This comes against the backdrop that legally enforced abstinence is unrealistic and that it is a waste of limited resources to prioritise counter-productive law enforcement in modern Australia.

Unlike prohibition-based approaches, harm minimisation approaches aim to combat the destruction associated with drug use, placing focus on prevention, treatment and reduction measures that address the health and well-being of users. They concentrate on minimising the negative impacts associated with drug use, both on an individual and social level.

Indeed, this is not to say that they advocate drug usage.

Rather, in contrast to prohibition-based enforcement, these strategies acknowledge that many people are not able or willing to discontinue engaging in recreational drugs, so they seek to give them quality information about the drugs they are consuming and offer the necessary resources to help them reduce the potential harms.

To date, successful harm reduction approaches tried in various parts of the world include decriminalisation, drug user education, pill testing services, needle exchange programs, heroin assisted therapy and safe-injecting rooms.

Portugal: A case study in drug decriminalisation

While the drug prohibition approach of criminalising drug users does more harm than good, the ‘Portugal Model’ of decriminalising drug possession system may be a long-term answer to our problematic drug use problem.

In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalise drug possession and consumption. This experiment arrived within the context of the country in a state of panic in the 1980s, which saw one in ten people gripped by a heroin addiction, including university students, bakers and carpenters. Public streets and squares were filled with people injecting themselves, and not a day passed when a robbery or mugging at a local business didn’t take place.

In the nearly 15 years since the Portuguese experiment launched, the country has seen drug abuse drop by half, with dramatic reduction in overdoses, HIV infection and drug-related crime.

Those caught with drug possession are no longer arrested. Instead, they are immediately assessed and sent for treatment or education, while failure to comply results in a fine. In contrast, for penalties on drug possession in NSW, see possess prohibited drug NSW.

Additionally, the money previously spent on prohibition enforcement has been directed instead to reconnecting drug addicts with society.

While Portugal has witnessed significant improvement in its drug crisis with the decriminalisation of illicit drugs, drug use has not disappeared completely. Nevertheless, they have allowed resources to be redirected towards an effective treatment system, with noteworthy reductions in addiction and drug-related deaths.

Protecting the Australian youth in the future

There are lessons to be learnt from the ‘Portugal Model’ when it comes to drug decriminalisation in Australia.

These are particularly of value if we want to protect our youth from further drug-associated harm.

Arguably, law makers need to acknowledge the reality of the extent of Australia’s recreational drug use problem. It needs to focus more on health and safety to reduce the unnecessary drug-related deaths. A similar approach to that of Portugal may be the answer.

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