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David Ahern

Current editor of The Majellan, David has spent more than 40 years as an editor/journalist .

The war on drugs hasn’t worked and never will. Every now and then police announce a large seizure of drugs and parade the bags of methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin before a large media contingent. As a marketing exercise it looks good on camera but in reality it achieves little.

Drug cartels will always find a way of evading border controls. That’s not to say authorities shouldn’t try and stamp out this illicit trade. Too many people suffer because of greed so every effort should be made to curtail those who profit off the misery of others.

What does need to change, however, is the way people who get caught up in the drug roundabout are treated. In most cases they shouldn’t be looked upon as criminals but victims because many have mental health issues and their drugtaking is symptomatic of more complex problems in their lives.

I have a close relative who has been down the drug ‘rabbit hole’ for almost 20 years. His drug taking in his late teens coincided with the development of mental health issues and to this day he struggles. He can’t hold down a job and he’s still heavily dependent on his parents for survival. It is very sad to see. Many families who have a similar story to tell, I’m sure, can relate.

Like most things in life, education is the tool. Young people need to be taught from a young age that drugs will only lead to misery and despair. Everyone can experience bad times but dulling mental anguish with drugs is not the answer.

Drug taking should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal matter unless violence or more serious offences are involved. Like my relative, people use drugs for a variety of reasons. But people who make bad decisions and fall into the drug trap need to be treated with compassion.

The never-ending war on drugs won’t be won by locking up the people who’ve hit rock bottom and are suffering mentally. A change of strategy, even decriminalisation, should be considered.

And an alternative view from Brendan Byrne …

The ‘success’ of decriminalisation in Portugal (eliminating criminal penalties for low level possession and consumption) has persuaded many countries to pursue similar polices. However, since that policy change in 2001, Portugal has seen a 36% increase in high-school drug use and a rise in the number of first-time drug users.

The only effective method to deter drug use is the consistent application of penalties that eventually sends the message that governments are taking this issue seriously.

There is a growing view that the war on drugs has failed, that all efforts have been exhausted and that decriminalisation is the only remaining option. This is not the case. It’s true that in Australia the punishment for supply is severe with the median sentence for traffickers being the third highest in the country after homicide and robbery.

The problem with our policy is that efforts are focussed on fighting trafficking and not against drug use itself. Drug abusers are consistently treated leniently and are mostly diverted to the health care system as a way of minimising the harm associated with stigmatising users with a prison sentence.

But if demand isn’t reduced, then all efforts to stop supply are futile.

The only solution to quell demand is to apply the law as it is written and impose the appropriate penalties. The possession of illegal drugs would first be dealt with a genuine warning, and on a second occasion by imprisonment, increasing the sentence on each further conviction.

Just as effective and consistent application of the law ended mass drunk driving in the late 1960s, which had far less social stigma at the time, such a policy, I believe, would persuade most people to stop taking drugs.

The book, Drug & Alcohol Dependency is available from Majellan Bookshop for $12.95, postage included.

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