The War on Drugs is lost

21:00, Feb 15 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman
CASUALTY: Philip Seymour Hoffman in his Oscar-winning role as Truman Capote.

What do an Academy Award-winning American actor and an Australian beauty school dropout have in common?

The paths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Schapelle Leigh Corby never crossed. But both lives have been ruined by drugs.

In the case of Hoffman, the tortured actor overdosed on heroin and died alone on his bathroom floor.

Corby has just been released from a nine-year stint in Bali's infamous Kerobokan Prison, having been convicted of smuggling 4.2kg of cannabis in a surfboard bag.

You might argue the comparison is facile; either because Corby doesn't deserve mention in the same breath as Hoffman, or because the American actor was a junkie, whereas Corby is either innocent or very stupid, depending on your point of view.

Yet it's arguable Hoffman's life may not have ended the way it did if what he was doing had not been highly illegal in the United States.


And regardless of the veracity of Corby's protestations that she did not deliberately smuggle drugs into Bali, the fact remains that Indonesia's extreme penalties for drug possession have taken some of the best years of a young Australian's life.

There are many others Corby has left behind in that jail, including the so-called Bali Nine; young Australians, two of whom are awaiting death by firing squad, who planned to smuggle 8kg of heroin into Indonesia.

It's not just our trans-Tasman cousins who take such risks with their lives and freedom. Kiwi mother and son heroin addicts Lorraine and Aaron Cohen spent a decade in a Malaysian jail after being convicted of trafficking in 1987.

Lorraine Cohen was at one point sentenced to hang, but her defence lawyer managed to get her death sentence commuted by convincing the court that she was an addict, not a drug-runner, and the large quantity of heroin found on her person was in fact all for her and her son.

If any further proof was needed of her addiction, both Lorraine and Aaron were arrested on drugs charges in New Zealand five years after returning home in 1996, and sentenced to another four years in prison.

The experience of the Cohens, Corby, the Bali Nine, Hoffman, and untold others who never make the news is pretty compelling evidence that most drug enforcement laws around the world are simply not working.

Indeed some of the toughest regimes - in Asia and the United States in particular - have some of the worst drug problems. Yet, as Russell Brand argued on these pages last week following the death of Hoffman, we persist in criminalising drug users and addicts at a ferocious cost, both economically and physically.

In the early 1970s American president Richard Nixon launched the "War on Drugs", kick-starting a worldwide crackdown on both users and suppliers. Thirty years later the Global Commission on Drug Policy labelled this move an unmitigated disaster that had created "devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world".

The commission called for urgent reforms to global drug control policies, pointing out that the US alone arrested 800,000 people a year for cannabis offences and spent US$41 billion enforcing its drug ban - six times as much as was spent on treatment for addiction.

In Australia, a group of eminent scientists, lawmakers and health professionals last year released a discussion paper suggesting the legalisation, regulation and taxation of all drugs. Here at home, a summit of 100 stakeholder groups recently called for more emphasis on treatment and less on the criminalisation of drug users.

TV3 devoted an episode of its audience-driven panel show The Vote to the topic, and in a poll afterwards 72 per cent of respondents agreed "soft drugs" such as cannabis should be decriminalised. Just 28 per cent disagreed.

Both the Law Commission and the New Zealand Drug Foundation have argued the lock-em-up approach to drug enforcement is a failure and that we should refocus our efforts from criminal justice to prevention and treatment.

The response from political leaders on both sides of the Tasman has been deafening silence. Our Government says it has no plans to reconsider its drug laws - despite even the US allowing several states to introduce medicinal marijuana laws.

Decriminalisation is such a political hot potato that neither National nor Labour wants to touch it with a ten-foot pole, terrified of being painted as "soft on drugs".

But in the meantime we persist in an alternate reality where organic cannabis is illegal but synthetic variants, arguably more harmful, are not. And where police trumpet the latest "P" bust, while the houses in which the lethal cocktail was brewed become a new minor asset class on Trade Me.

So far, one of the few Western nations brave enough to try decriminalising all drugs is Portugal, which dropped possession offences some 12 years ago but still prosecutes suppliers. The results have been encouraging. Drug use has not climbed, although it hasn't gone down either. Many more addicts have sought treatment.

It doesn't seem likely that any society will ever manage to stop drug abuse, no matter how severe the penalties. The desire to alter one's reality via some sort of stimulant is as old as humanity itself. That certainly doesn't mean drugs are good for you. Quite the reverse. But like so many things in life, prohibition just doesn't work.

There has to be a better way, and it's about time our politicians and policymakers became brave enough to begin looking for it.

Sunday Star Times