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September 1-8, 2007 - Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Collected Columns: An Honest Debate About Drugs

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September 1, 2007 - Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Let's All Grow Up, Stop Pushing Lies And Have An Honest Debate About Drugs

By Lisa Pryor

What a disservice Andrew Johns has done to the kiddies of Australia. How irresponsible to reveal years of drug use when he knows it is official policy to scare people off drugs by making them believe anyone who tries them ends up a derro.

At least he had the decency to speak of a struggle with depression. Because we all know the only permissible way to talk about drug use is to say it was a past mistake or the result of some kind of trauma or mental illness.

When is this stupidity going to stop? When are we going to stop dealing in hyperbole and trickery and have an adult debate about drugs? A debate that is not dominated by what-will-the-kiddies-think lies? My generation grew up with plenty of shocking warnings about druggies and drug pushers and plenty of us take drugs because we know those warnings were a complete crock.

The truth is that recreational drug taking is like mountaineering. When all goes well, as it does most of the time, the experience can be fun and even profound. Not only can the experience be great, it can also give the adventurer insights into his or her own character and the workings of the brain, insights that can be applied to the rest of life. But drug taking, like mountaineering, can be dangerous.

Drug takers can develop addictions, scramble their brains and a small minority will die. Mountaineers lose fingers and toes to frostbite. Plenty die. They put the lives of rescuers at risk. When things do go wrong, it always looks like an unnecessary risk in hindsight. Families are destroyed.

The difference between drug taking and mountaineering is that no one tries to ban mountaineering. Most crucially, no one would be despicable enough to try to make mountaineering as unsafe as possible to discourage people from trying it. No one would be cruel enough to try to increase the number of mountaineering deaths by making safety equipment hard to come by, all so they could say: "See, I told you so." Yet this is exactly the policy that is applied to recreational drugs.

The illegality of drugs such as ecstasy means the quality and content of a pill is unreliable. Pill testing kits are hard to come by when they should be as freely available as free syringes. There is a real generation gap on this topic. Older people who came of age before drugs such as ecstasy were popular and freely available assume that it is only deadbeats and troubled youngsters who are partaking because all the normal people taking drugs keep quiet about it. If only they knew the truth.

This generation gap has developed because my generation is too gutless to stand up for the truth. Plenty of people my age take recreational drugs occasionally. It tends to be a seasonal thing, something saved up for New Year's Eve and dance parties over the summer.

As a generation, we passively accept that it is illegal. We passively accept that occasionally someone we know will be caught and have their career destroyed. We are willing to see friends get criminal records, see girls such as the young dance teacher Annabel Catt die because they mistakenly take strange substances passed off as ecstasy. We see public figures who are caught have their reputations besmirched and we say nothing.

No one is willing to stand up and admit to it because the risks are so high. The risks are high precisely because so many recreational drug users are leading normal lives with serious jobs that they don't want to put at risk. They are not radicals. They have families they don't want to embarrass.

This timidity is pretty inexcusable when you think of what people have been willing to stand up for in the name of ending hypocrisy. Think of activists in the 1970s who spoke out against laws banning gay sex because honesty and principles counted. It is time to end the lies and start having an honest debate about drugs.

September 7, 2007 - Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Breaking Taboos: It's Time We Recognised That Illegal Drugs Are Fun

By Michael Duffy

Three cheers for my fellow columnist Lisa Pryor, who last week suggested we acknowledge the elephant in the room where public debate about drugs occurs. It's time to stand up and say illegal drug use is fun and -- unless you get caught -- harmless.

Yes, there are exceptions to this. But far fewer than if you tried to make the same claim about nicotine or alcohol or junk food. The criminalisation of recreational drugs will one day be looked back on with the incredulity we now reserve for Prohibition.

The criminalisation of fun drugs is based on claims about the harm they do, which fly in the face of the experience of a large proportion of the population. The six-week "drug holiday" for rugby league players announced this week is surely an acknowledgment of just how common and acceptable recreational drug-taking is among young people, including very fit and healthy young people.

The persistence of drug criminalisation reflects the self-interest of a loose coalition of politicians, moralists and law enforcement officials, in search of headlines, bigger budgets and more power. They've been winning the argument for a long time now, at least in terms of public policy. What might alter this situation?

The change will eventually come from a growing awareness of the terrible and accelerating damage the illicit drug economy is doing to peace and prosperity around the globe. That trade is booming today because of the trade liberalisation and globalisation we've experienced since the 1990s. These have created enormous wealth, thereby expanding the markets for fun drugs, and making it even easier for drug growers and manufacturers in other countries to reach those markets.

This is the theory of Moises Naim, editor of the magazine Foreign Policy. Recently Naim told me: "The United Nations Office of Drug Control and Crime just released a report estimating the value of the international drug trade at $US660 billion ($800 billion) a year. It is great, it is growing, it is diversifying, both geographically and in terms of product lines. It's a vast industry that moves a lot of money and has huge requirements in terms of infrastructure, transportation and so on. All of that on a daily basis, on a systematic basis, would be impossible without the active complicity of governments around the world."

In many Third World countries (or "narcostates"), governments and their agencies are now corrupted by drug traders and their allies in politics and legitimate business activities. This makes much of the international war against drugs -- estimated to cost $US100 million a year -- an ineffectual farce.

The scale of the drug economy is only possible because First World countries have been unable to stop the immense craving for fun drugs among their own populations. As Naim puts it: "The markets are massive and they're created by state intervention [ie criminalisation]."

He believes the international drug trade is now so big and corrosive of national sovereignty that it, along with other cross-border crimes such as people smuggling and money laundering, "are reconfiguring and transforming the world's politics and economics today far more than terrorism".

Everywhere you look, the growing spread of drugs is trashing public morality and everyday life. Naim has written that the world is undergoing an unprecedented pandemic of crime. In 2003 the UN reported that crime rates were increasing almost everywhere. In cities such as Johannesburg and Milan there have been large protest marches complaining about rising crime. The World Bank says Latin America's economic growth could be 8 per cent higher if its crime rates dropped.

What drives up crime? Poverty doesn't seem to matter. Inequality and urbanisation play a part. But researchers agree a big contributor is the combination of a high proportion of young men, easy access to guns, and ample drugs.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leaders this weekend ought to be talking seriously about drugs. But of course they won't, because that would offend the United States, whose expensive and long-running war on drugs is possibly the greatest public policy failure of all time.

The latest issue of Foreign Policy has an article on this by Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, which argues for decriminalisation. He notes that the number of Americans incarcerated for US drug-law violations has increased from 50,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. The US, with five per cent of the world's population, has 25 per cent of its prisoners.

For a long time the US and its punitive-moral agenda has dominated the international agencies set up to deal with drugs. But Nadelmann says this hegemony is now under challenge for the first time. "The European Union is demanding rigorous assessment of drug-control strategies. Exhausted by decades of service to the US-led war on drugs, Latin Americans are far less inclined to collaborate closely with US drug enforcement efforts. Finally waking up to the threat of HIV/AIDS, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and even Malaysia are increasingly accepting of syringe-exchange and other harm reduction programs [which the US opposes]."

This is good news even if it is only a start. The truth is that the West's war on drugs can never be won, because too many people don't want it to be won. And while fun drugs do some damage, it is only a tiny fraction of the destruction caused around the globe by drug prohibition.

September 8, 2007 - Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Hyperbole Can Leave You Just As High (And Dry) If The Message Is Cast Aside

By Lisa Pryor

Thank you very much, Steve Fossett. Here I was, in this very spot last week, writing about how recreational drug takers are no different from adventurers who risk their lives in search of highs. And then Fossett drops, like a plane from the Nevada skies, into my lap to prove my point. As the search for the missing multimillionaire continues through the rocky terrain south of Reno, my imagination drifts to consider how this story might be reported if he was brought down by drugs rather than a single-engine Citabria Super Decathlon.

Questions would be asked. What was wrong with a millionaire who appeared to have everything to live for and still took crazy risks with planes and hot air balloons? How can we stop other middle-aged people thinking extreme sports are OK? Is the health system to blame for not addressing the underlying issue of undiagnosed midlife crisis?

The obituary, if, God forbid, it comes to that, would be tempered. Glorifying a man who valued an adrenaline rush over his own life would be irresponsible.

I am banging the drug drum once more this week. Last week I called for an adult debate on drugs which recognises both the pleasures and risks of recreational chemicals.

While it is valiant to discourage teenagers from messing with growing brains, party drugs are more likely to be used by grown adults, some of them sensible. The 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that the typical age for first trying ecstasy was 22.8 years. For cocaine, it was 23.5. Even for cannabis, it was 18.7.

My concern is that hyperbolic government scare campaigns make people less likely to be safe with drugs if they do start using them at 22.8. Babies and bathwater and all of that. When the anti-drug message is too lurid, the whole message is cast aside. Once someone tries a drug and discovers that it does not always start with nausea and dizziness and proceed forthwith to prostitution and bodybags, it is easy to forget that drugs should be handled with care, like crystal vases or stingrays.

Druggies can end up falling back on hokey homespun drug wisdom, rather than science, to keep safe. For example, I have heard people say: "I've heard you can't overdose on cocaine." The reality is that cocaine was the underlying cause of death for 10 people in 2005, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

I have also heard people say: "Ecstasy is harmless." The reality is that studies show there may be a link between ecstasy and memory loss. A study by the University of Amsterdam, released in June, found that ecstasy affected verbal memory even when taken for only a short time. The memory loss link has not been proven conclusively. But anyone who has tried to count out change within 24 hours of taking a pill probably suspects there is some truth to this.

The uncritical embrace of drugs is as wrongheaded as uncritical condemnation. But even if there are health implications, sending users to jail helps no one.

So what kind of a drug policy should we consider? How can we recognise that taking chemical pleasures can be a rational choice while also recognising that drugs destroy the lives of some? How can laws benefit the responsible while also protect the silly?

We should abolish criminal sanctions for personal drug use and focus on treatment and counselling instead. We should maintain penalties for people who use drugs while driving or give drugs to anyone underage. While we're at it, we should ban donations to political parties from the drug, tobacco and alcohol industries so that governments are not beholden to drugs which happen to be legal now.

I have plagiarised all that from the Greens. I love a bit of hippie baiting as much as the next person, so I was surprised to find myself so in agreement with their drugs policy.

I was surprised how moderate it was given that the Premier, Morris Iemma, said during the last state election campaign that the policy was an attempt to score "a cheap bit of publicity", "an absurd, ridiculous and disgusting policy" and "unbalanced and stupid".

This insult-throwing is a shame, really. If only some of our political leaders had some of the courage and daring of Steve Fossett.

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