Universal tolerance and eliminating harm

A radical but inconclusive report on strategic approaches to illicit drugs driven by the broad objective  “Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?” has set some high ideals. 

It most notably recommended Australia progressively decriminalise personal drug use and allow users to test the purity and safety of drugs.

It largely concurs a prohibition-based strategy had failed and had been ineffective in the supply of drugs or reducing the subsequent harms to individuals and society. Some police work, like large-scale drug busts, had improved but at the lower end of the user scale where the most damage was done, criminal sanctions were least effective. It hopes to treat organised drug trafficking as a law enforcement matter and use and possession as a health and social matter.

But one of the problems here is there is significant crossover. There are not simply one set of nefarious dealers and another subset of helpless addicts. In many cases dealing is the way of supporting a habit and while to some degree a consequence of black market driven high prices, the anti-social behaviour is also very much a product of the effects of the drug itself. Decriminalisation may take the money out of the equation (and the criminal coffers) but will it change the behaviour?

When it comes to the social and health issues it also recognised success very much depends on a massive shift in funding in rehabilitation services, particularly acute in regional areas. While few would deny the pressing need for this, cutting back on the policing whose objective is community safety might be a bridge too far if it gives a green light to anti-social or dangerous behaviour. The report recommends drug driving, for instance, should be based around the impairment rather than simply being in possession or use. But recent musical festivals show this is far from an exact science and police are still tasked with the fundamentals of keeping mind-altered drivers off the road. The prohibition of driving under the influence of a legal drug like alcohol has largely succeeded because it came through a combination of education, behavioural change and harsh retribution for infringement.

Given the failures in the past of zero tolerance, these ideas are now a necessary part of the discussion but harm minimisation must incorporate all elements of the community.  Fine ideals but practical applications are some way off.