It’s Time to Decriminalise, Regulate and Tax Drugs

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Drug decriminalisation

The release of the Australia 21 report on drugs caused quite a stir last week. Entitled Can Australia Respond to Drugs More Effectively and Safely?, the report made a number of key recommendations aiming to decriminalise drugs use in this country.

What was so significant about this call for decriminalisation was that eleven of the sixteen experts, who produced the contents of the report, were former senior law enforcement and law officials, including ex-police commissioners and heads of corrective services.

Of the thirteen recommendations made, Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, pointed to the one that recommended “starting a process whereby the black market is replaced as much as possible by a white market” as the most significant.

The report outlines that this “should be accomplished by regulating and, where possible, taxing the supply of currently illicit drugs, with the regulation of supply being gradually phased in.”

But drug prohibition kicked off a century ago, and the war on drugs has been going strong for over fifty years. So for many Australians the idea that these substances – that are often associated with causing harm and leading to incarceration – could suddenly be legal, is a little confronting.

And such a foreign idea leads to questions about how a regulated market like this could work in in Australia.

An ongoing system of regulation

NSW Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® that “an independent drug regulatory authority can be established.” And this body would “develop evidence-based and continuously evaluated policies and programs for safer drug use.”

This proposed regulatory body that would evaluate drugs on a case-by-case basis, and lead to the legalisation of some for recreational use, is a key recommendation of the Australian Greens’ new drug policy that was released in late November last year.

Take cannabis in the US

Dr Faruqi points to the legalisation of cannabis in other parts of the world, as an example of how “white markets” are beginning to develop elsewhere.

“One in five Americans now live in states where adult use of cannabis is legal or in the process of legalisation,” the doctor said, adding that it’s likely to be legalised in Canada next year. “The world is changing and Australia needs to as well.”

he NSW Greens spokesperson on drugs and harm minimisation further pointed out that, “The evidence from Colorado shows that there has been no impact on the number of youth trying marijuana.”

Colorado was one of the first US states to legalise recreational cannabis in November 2012. And today, it’s a billion dollar a year industry.

According to a report in the Boston Globe, the consensus amongst a group of top state officials was that the availability of the drug has had no overall negative effects since it started being sold in retail stores in 2014.

The sale of pot in Colorado is heavily regulated, with each plant containing an identification chip for tracking. And the marijuana products produced are tested for potency, as well as being sold in childproof containers.

Dr Faruqi outlined that people are going to take cannabis and other drugs, whether the government allows it or not. “Our responsibility is to enact policy based on evidence, with minimising harm at the core of our approach,” she added.

But cannabis isn’t the only illicit substance out there, and nor is it the most controversial. As Dr Wodak has pointed out public opinion in Australia is changing towards marijuana. “Fifty five percent of the community now support regulating and taxing recreational cannabis.”

Over-the-counter ecstasy

Former Victorian police senior sergeant Greg Denham said that ecstay, or MDMA, is another obvious contender as a drug that could be legalised. “Pure MDMA has very few side effects,” he explained and noted that problems associated with the drug are often due to contamination.

A recent spate of drug-related deaths in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast were linked to batches of capsules being sold as pure MDMA, which also contained NBOMe, a much more dangerous hallucinogenic drug.

Mr Denham is the Australian representative for the US-based agency Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an international group of police officers and other members of the criminal justice system that want to see an end to drug prohibition.

He envisages that MDMA could be sold at the chemist in a restricted manner. A person would have to be over eighteen years of age to be sold the product, and would have to show their ID. And this pharmaceutical grade drug wouldn’t come with the variations in quality that the street sold variety does.

Harder drugs

As for the “more concerning drugs, such as crystal meth or heroin, you would obviously need significant restrictions placed upon these,” Denham said, outlining that a person would have to go through an application process via a GP to obtain such substances.

This process would ensure these drugs weren’t made available to people with particular mental health or physical concerns.

So a legalised and regulated drug market would cut down on the harms associated with drug use, make them available under restricted circumstances and as the case has been shown with legalised marijuana in the States, it wouldn’t increase their use amongst minors. So what else would it lead to?

A reduction in crime and enforcement

Crime would decrease, as the “white market” slowly eradicated the black market. Organised crime would lose a lot of its finance, as Mr Denham put it, restricting criminals “in terms of financing other illegal activity,” as well as causing a significant “reduction in the violence” associated with crime.

This would then in turn lead to less of a burden on the criminal justice system. “So you wouldn’t have the impact on the courts, the prison system and policing,” Denham said. “There would be cost-saving there.”

Less harmful than the alcohol market

And the ex-police officer further elaborated that the major issues at the moment over the sale of the alcohol are “around pricing, availability and marketing.” And you wouldn’t have those issues with a regulated drug market, as it would be run differently.

A government subsidised industry could produce drugs in a quality-controlled manner. Their sale would be heavily regulated and minimally taxed, Denham said. There wouldn’t be “big pricing variations,” while marketing of the products wouldn’t be allowed.

And these drugs wouldn’t be as readily available as alcohol.

“So you’d cut back on those three areas, and not have those big marketing campaigns that you have with alcohol,” Mr Denham concluded. “In terms of an overall win-win situation, there would be many positive outcomes.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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