Growing support for rational evaluation of drug policies in Australia

Today in Australia, politicians hailing from different parties called on the government to task the Productivity Commission to investigate the adequacy of the country’s drug laws, including the economic and social costs of law enforcement measures on illicit drugs. They reason that the entry of the Productivity Commission will help to depoliticise and inject evidence into the debate on drug law reform—a debate that is timely given the widespread (though sometimes merely private) acknowledgement amongst policymakers, experts and the public that current approaches are not working.

The call for an official review of Australia’s drug laws rides on a wave of national debate on the need for drug law reform stimulated by the media, and the Australia 21 report The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen released in April this year. The Australia 21 report was based on a roundtable discussion involving former high level politicians and policymakers, and community representatives. It considers the costs and benefits of Australia’s existing policies, and concludes that they have failed in their fundamental objective of protecting Australians from the harms of drug use and markets. It points out the alternative options to prohibition that other parts of the globe are starting to consider—including de-penalisation, decriminalisation, legalisation, regulation and taxation—and declares that “[i]t is time to reopen the national debate about drug use, its regulation and control.”

It appears that a national debate on the need for drug policy reform has indeed opened in Australia. However it is sobering to note that the prospect for reform remains a serious political challenge, given Prime Minister Julia Gillard shut down any discussion of a change in drug policy upon the release of the Australia 21 report, and public debate on the topic appears to remain deeply divided. Nevertheless the initiative taken by parliamentarians today to ensure a rational evaluation of Australia’s existing policies is an exciting development. There is hope yet that Australia may become a regional, even global, leader on the reform of drug policies to confront the damaging impacts caused by existing prohibition-based measures.

Gloria Lai, IDPC Senior Policy Officer