The functionality of society is a push and pull between progressive and conservative agendas. Western countries tend to be in a constant state of flux, with left wing governments coming into power and pushing progressive policy, only to be replaced by right-wing governments pushing conservative policy – and the cycle repeats. Even conservative politicians like Pauline Hansen and our current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have both publicly admitted to having done drugs like marijuana, but few in politics push for drug law reform.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a push at all. At the head of the charge is The Australian Sex Party led by Fiona Patten, who told me “I’m very open about my drug use. I’m a member of Parliament, I work very hard, I care for my community, I care for my family – and yet, I might have a joint at night instead of a glass of wine. We have to start coming out of the closet around drug use.” Fiona explained that The Australian Sex Party’s official stance on drug law reform is “the decriminalisation of personal possession and use of all drugs. Fundamentally, drug use should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.”

There is a long history of the war on drugs in Australia, and we’re still no closer to a cease-fire than we were twenty years ago. Recent events such as multiple overdoses and deaths in Melbourne due to a single bad batch of drugs being sold as MDMA and regular heroin overdoses in Richmond have drawn renewed attention to the losing battle. Public calls for pill testing to become available, and for safe injecting facilities to be established in Richmond have reignited debate. Yet politicians still resist  discussions of drug law reform, which entirely baffles Fiona. “I don’t understand the resistance from mainstream politicians. In regards to the safe injecting centre proposal, there is not a single community organisation that was opposed to it. The politicians were fearful that they would be seen as soft on drugs.”

The overarching political view is that it is people’s own fault if they end up addicted to drugs, or if they overdose. ”I think it is around the pleasure principle – if you take drugs, that’s your fault, and you’re just doing it for fun.” Fiona said in a pragmatic tone during our phone conversation, from the halls of the Victorian Parliament. “We know that the vast majority of people who become really badly addicted to drugs are people who are self medicating due to trauma. Honestly, I don’t think anyone becomes a heroin addict for fun.”  I spoke to Colleen Hartland, The Greens MP for the Western Metropolitan Region, who explained that “the war on drugs just doesn’t work, and costs a huge amount of money. We’re imprisoning people for addiction, when we should be assisting them to get into rehab and enter a different kind of life.”

Community support for drug law reform is at an all time high, yet politicians do not reflect this societal attitude. Fiona Patten sees the solution in the hands of the people – “I think we’re just going to have to enter into some civil disobedience on this.” Pill testing has become a contentious point of debate here in Australia. Music festivals in Europe have implemented pill testing services, allowing revellers to have their drugs tested to establish what substances they are consuming. Numerous studies point towards this method saving lives – but the Australian government has, as with safe injecting facilities, decided to not act in accordance with expert opinions. “As far as pill testing, I think it’s just this judgemental thing around the pleasure principal,” Fiona said. “It’s a very anglo-christian, presbyterian approach to life that somehow pleasure is bad, and we shouldn’t be assisting people to have fun safely.”

The civil disobedience to which Fiona referred has already begun to take shape. Multiple music festivals have decided to eschew the laws around pill testing, and established testing facilities at festival sites. The problem is that the attendees of these events are still scared to use them. I spoke to a reveller at a recent music festival offering pill testing (I won’t name that festival here, so as not to incriminate the organisers) who told me that “I would use it, but right now it feels kind of dodgy. Like, I’m worried a cop might jump out and bust me as soon as I hand my stuff over or something.” This fear of persecution from authorities has resulted in tragedy before. There have been multiple cases of people overdosing because they’ve taken all of their drugs at a festival gate as soon as they see sniffer dogs. While Colleen Hartland supports pill testing, she thinks that there is an element of danger to these guerrilla pill testing facilities – “one of my concerns is that it is not very accurate. They could be giving people a false sense of security. I think we need to move along the European lines, where drugs are tested in a police lab, and it is police who actually issue the warnings. That’s much more effective than anything else.”

Drug Law Reform Australia state that “the total cost of drug law enforcement is around $1.1 billion annually.” Simply the cost of incarceration of a drug addict is astronomical, as Colleen explained – “It costs about $140,000 to keep someone in a prison for a year. To keep someone in a long term rehab program is about $40,000. If you look at those figures, it’s clear that we’re wasting a lot of money.” It is an expensive war to fight against an invisible enemy, and one which clearly cannot be won. Meanwhile, the casualties from the trenches are starting to add up.                                                    

“Australia has a three pillar approach to drug policy, which is supply reduction, harm minimisation and reduction of use,” Fiona explained. “But we’ve never adhered to that. We’ve always focused on supply reduction. Three quarters of the money that we spend on drugs is spent on police enforcement and prohibition. We’ve never really adhered the notion of harm reduction and harm minimisation. We might talk the talk, but we never spend enough money on treatment, education or minimisation programs. We’re stuck in the just say no position. As I experienced with the safe injecting centre campaign, even though all of the public institutions were on side, the government and the opposition were still going to beat each other up about being soft on drugs and soft on crime.”

Therein lies one of the biggest problems. The debate stops being centred around the lives and safety of people, and becomes about two political parties duking it out in the public arena over who is tougher. Colleen said “the reality is that just looking tough on drugs doesn’t help at all.” Fiona agrees with that assessment, arguing that “it’s entirely a pissing contest. Portugal decriminalised the use and possession of all drugs in 2001. Both parties supported it, and the community was just desperate because they were seeing so many of their loved ones overdose. For some reason, we are yet to reach that stage.” When people die from taking bad drugs or overdosing, the Government response is mediocre and archaic at best – or shows contempt for human life at worst.

In Fiona’s opinion, the war on drugs was dead in the water from the get go – “It failed the day they started it. We as humans have been using drugs since time began. So to try and stop us from doing it was never ever going to work. Taking this approach that tobacco and alcohol are okay, but cannabis and cocaine are not was never going to work. It is so expensive, and it harms far more people than it helps.” Alcohol is widely considered to be more harmful to individuals and to the public than, for instance, marijuana. Yet, because alcohol has been legal for so long, it is normalised by society.

This baffles Colleen to some extent –“I think our relationship with alcohol is really fascinating. Somehow people don’t think that binge drinking three or four nights a week has any harm, whereas in reality the physical side effects from alcoholism are going to be much more extreme than many other drugs. It’s a slow death. Personally, I would rate alcohol as a dangerous drug.” If politicians were trying to protect people from harm by taking such a hard stance on drugs, why not take the same approach to alcohol, which has been proven to be such a danger? That is what it comes down to in many ways – do our politicians represent their constitutes and their views, or are they simply playing political games with one another? At this point, it is looking like the latter.

This is starting to reflect poorly on our country on an international scale, as Fiona told me. “People from around the world view Australia very differently from afar. They’re astounded that we have such draconian drug laws, they’re astounded that we still haven’t legalised gay marriage. People used to think that Australia was this free-wheeling, easy going country and now they’re shocked by many of the things we’re doing – whether it’s our approach to asylum seekers, our approach to our aboriginal first Australians, or our approach to drugs and same sex marriage. We’re largely a progressive nation, and our politicians and policies should reflect that.”  

Pill testing in other countries around the world has proven results, which Fiona is well aware of. “One of the outcomes we have found from overseas is that it has improved the quality of pills overall. Once pill testing was established in Germany, you found that less bad pills were going around. One of the side effects is that through pill testing you actually create a safer industry. You ensure that people know what they’re taking. If you tell someone that a drug isn’t what they think it is, they don’t take it.” All things considered, we are moving in the right direction and public and professional opinions on drug law reform are beginning to reach a critical mass. Colleen explained that “recently when a whole range of politicians and previous senior police came out saying that our current drug laws are not working, that had an effect. The coroners report coming out saying that we need a safe injecting room has had an effect. All of these things pile up, and it will get to the stage where the government cannot ignore it. I think we’re approaching that stage. All of the evidence says that the way they’re operating is not working.”

The war on drugs is still being fought, but the forces are exhausted. The results have not been achieved. The wasted money is piling up, and more people are being sent to prison when they should be treated in rehab.

This is not a war on drugs. This is a war on people.

 Originally Published September 2018