The NSW government is continuing its hard-line approach towards the use and possession of illegal drugs, increasing the presence of police at music festivals and refusing to implement harm minimisation initiatives such as pill testing.

Premier Berejiklian and her cohorts continue to spout the rhetoric used by prohibitionists for generations – that drugs are illegal due to the fact they are dangerous, and harm reduction measures will send the message that taking these substance is permissible, thereby encouraging their use.

But the fact of the matter is that drugs are not criminalised due to their dangers, but for reasons based in power, politics and prejudice.

Lack of correlation between harm and criminalisation

A study by Professor David Nutt, Dr Leslie King and Dr Lawrence Phillips on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs conducted a ‘multicriteria decision analysis’ of 20 drugs, applying 16 criteria to determine the harm they pose, nine of which related to harms to the user and seven to harms towards others.

The criterion included damage to health, economic cost and links to crime. Each drug was given an overall harm score, and the results came as a surprise to many.

The study found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most harmful drug overall is alcohol. And despite the vast number of deaths every year due to illnesses caused by cigarettes, with all their contaminants, tobacco came in at sixth. Of course, both of these drugs are legal.

Illegal drugs took the second to fifth positions, descending from heroin at number two, to crack cocaine, methamphetamine and cocaine.

However, it is notable that many illegal drugs – such as MDMA (‘ecstacy’), ketamine and LSD – were assessed to be less than one-seventh as harmful as alcohol and, perhaps more importantly for prohibition purposes, were less than one-twentieth as harmful to others as alcohol.

Brief history of criminalisation

Australians in the nineteenth century were among the world’s largest consumers of opiates, in the form of patent medicines. Laudanum, for example, was a mixture of opium and alcohol and was administered to children.

And before federation in 1901, very few laws regulated the use of drugs in Australia.

The first Australian drug laws were patently racist in nature. A law in 1857 which imposed restrictions on opium was expressly aimed at discouraging the entry of Chinese people into the country.

Further restrictions were passed in 1897 which prohibited any use of opium by Indigenous, while other members of the population were allowed to possess and smoke the drug until 1908.

More restrictions came about to maintain relations with the United States. Influenced by temperance activists, US President Theodore Roosevelt convened an international opium conference in 1909, which eventually resulted in the International Opium Convention.

Australia became a signatory to the convention in 1913, and by 1925 the Convention had expanded to include the prohibition of opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, and cannabis.

The initial criminalisation of marijuana also had a racist element, and was a poor excuse for curing a social ill.

Powerful media magnate William Randolph Hearst claimed that “marihuana” was responsible for murderous rampages by blacks and Mexicans, and disrupting the fabric of traditional society, and Hearst ensured his newspapers propagated those views.

Of course, alcohol prohibition was tried and failed in various parts of Australia around the time of the Great Depression. The Temperance Movement which led to greater regulation and, in some places, prohibition led to an increase in criminal activity and was eventually abandoned – with the power and influence of the Aussie drinking culture winning in the end, despite the drug’s harms.

The first wave of broader drug criminalisation in Australia was unconcerned with recreational drugs, which only became used more commonly used in the 1960s.

Drugs were primarily regulated under the various Poisons Acts of the states, reflecting the need to control the use of medicinal substances, rather than criminalising use.

But by the 1970s, all Australian states had enacted laws that made distinctions between possession, use and supply.

Start of harm reduction strategies

In 1985, the federal and state governments adopted a National Drug Strategy with a view to addressing the issue of drug misuse.

The strategy placed a heavy emphasis on prohibition and policing, but also recognised the need for harm reduction initiatives.

Australian governments, however, have invested the vast majority of resources into prohibition and enforcement, with a recent study finding that just 2% of funds go towards harm reduction, while a whopping 66% are spent in law enforcement alone.

Failure of the war on drugs

Drug prohibition has failed, however, to reduce consumption.

In fact, a substantial 43% of Australians admit to having tried an illicit drug at least once in their lifetimes – technically making them criminals, albeit undetected ones.

Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute remarked that “while we focus on the use of drugs, we will continue to implement ineffective strategies, such as arresting people for use and possession”, adding, “if we focus on harms, we start to implement effective strategies, including prevention, harm reduction and treatment.”

Other countries, including Portugal, have moved away from a prohibitionist model and reaped enormous financial and social benefits as a result.

But as Australia continues to invest hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year on drug law enforcement and incarceration, the above study is a salient reminder that prohibition is an irrational policy dictated by considerations other than the harms created by particular substances.