PUBLIC HEALTH by Ross ColquhounNews Weekly
Are we giving hard drugs too soft a ride?
, August 1, 2015
In Australia, harm reduction guides policy on illicit drug use in the belief that most people who use drugs, including those who inject them, experience little or no harm, that to use drugs recreationally and for pleasure is a legitimate lifestyle choice and that society is obliged to minimise the harm associated with drug use.
Drug testing or detection methods such as sniffer dogs, road-side driver testing and searches, especially of school children or employees, is considered an infringement of human rights and an invasion of privacy.
While it seems that the majority of Australians do not agree with this attitude, use of illicit drugs has increased and Australia has one of the highest rates of illicit drug use and subsequent harm among developed countries.
Iron rod for legal drugs
On the other hand, the attitude to other, mostly legal, drugs is different. The strategy is to reduce the demand, reduce the number of users and make these other drugs less accessible and available. Nicotine use is discouraged with the aim of zero consumption, smoking in public is banned, the price increased to deter use, confronting health warnings and public education campaigns are funded and deterrents and prohibitions enforced.
Alcohol is banned for those under 18, sales and advertising are strictly controlled, and people drinking alcohol and driving, using machinery or who are in positions where public safety is compromised are prosecuted.
Restrictions are placed on hours of trading of retail outlets where alcohol is sold. Compulsory or random testing for alcohol impairment is accepted in many workplaces.
It is clear that the levels of usage of nicotine and alcohol have declined and that the harm has been reduced in overall terms. Smoking was once tolerated as a social norm and the harm discounted or ignored. Since 1993 the proportion of people over 14 years of age who smoke daily has declined from 25 per cent to 15.1 per cent, according to the 2010 National Household Survey on Drugs.
More modest reductions in alcohol use and harm have been achieved, seemingly as laws on alcohol supply have not been toughened due to the influence of the alcohol lobby.
Notwithstanding, levels of alcohol consumption have declined from 10.2 per cent of the population in 1991 drinking daily to 7.2 per cent, and from 41 per cent drinking weekly to 39.1 per cent, according to the National Household Survey on Drugs in 2010. Moreover, levels of violence around city venues have dramatically declined.
The social consensus is that a ban could be possible on tobacco, despite the fact that during the 1940s to the 1960s it was a socially acceptable, even desirable, activity.
The processes included a clear and uncompromising acknowledgement from the health, government and fiscal sectors that cigarette smoking was damaging our community. The conclusion that this must change for economic and, more importantly, health reasons eventually stopped in their tracks the pro-smoking academics and doctors as the population came to recognise that “every smoke you have is doing you damage”.
There arose a sustained political will to create and implement policies to bring about change, including increased taxation, total advertising blackouts and bans or prohibition on smoking in defined places. Then came the creation and implementation of demand-reduction strategies, including health warnings and plain packaging on cigarette packets.
Not to mention the relentless public education campaign on the dangers of smoking.
So, why kid gloves with illegal drugs?
It seems from both anecdotal and empirical data that such resolute policies work, even with a once widely accepted and socially palatable “legal drug” like tobacco. It seems that the relentlessness war on this legal drug, which some 17 per cent of Australians still use, is not only waged, but affirmed; while at the same time an apparent war on illicit drugs is declared lost.
This seemingly contradictory position on illicit drugs is indicative of a social agenda among policymakers in contradiction to the attitude of the general public, as discovered in household surveys on drug use in 2010. The way a society deals with illicit drugs and the harm to individuals and society is influenced by individual experience, including self-interest and the social or cultural group to which people belong.
However, the evidence is clear: strong deterrents and reduced access to drugs decease levels of use and harm both to the individuals who use them and to the wider community.
Dr Ross Colquhoun is an executive member of Drug Free Australia and research fellow, and a member of the Drug Advisory Council of Australia (www.daca.org.au).