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War on drugs -

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War on drugs

Broadcast: 23/11/2010

Reporter: Tracy Bowden

Ethan Nadelmann from the Drug Policy Alliance speaks with Tracy Bowden.


TRACEY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: Elsewhere across Victoria today police launched one of the biggest anti
drugs operations the state has ever seen.

More than 600 officers raided a cannabis and heroin syndicate that police allege made $400 million
in just the past two years.

But as police were claiming victory in that battle, a visiting expert on narcotics law was telling
the National Press Club that the wider international war on drugs can't be won.

Ethen Nadelmann heads the George Soros funded Policy Alliance in New York. He says that privately
more and more politicians, police and health authorities know prohibition of drugs can't succeed
and in fact only benefits criminals.

And he argues a move to decriminalise soft drugs and regulate supply of narcotics in countries like
Australia is only a matter of time.

I spoke to Ethan Nadelmann in Sydney.

Ethan Nadelmann, who is winning the drug war? Is it in fact winnable?

are really benefiting from the drug war these days.

On the one hand, you have all the criminal organisations in Mexico and Afghanistan, in Australia,
in the United States that are making billions and billions of dollars. And so long as they're not
getting caught or going to prison, they're benefitting.

And the other group that's benefitting essentially is the prison industrial complex. It's the
hundreds and thousands - the millions of people around the world getting paid to enforce these
laws, getting paid to put people in prison, getting paid, paid, paid, basically to keep arresting
people in what's a bottomless pit.

In a way what's happened over the last few decades is that the organised criminals keep making more
and more money, the law enforcement establishment keeps getting bigger and bigger.

They're benefitting and everybody else is worse off.

TRACEY BOWDEN: You make it sound very easy - legally regulate it and everything will be fine. But
what is your plan? How easy would that be?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well I think the first thing is we need to transform nature of the debate.

I mean, so much of the debate in your country and mine is about which new law enforcement approach
might work better.

But I think the really important debate is between those people who would say 'Let's legalise the
whole shebang' and those who say 'Let's not legalise but we need a much more sensible public health
policy, one that focuses on reducing the death, the disease, the crime and suffering associated
both with drugs and our failed prohibitionist policies'.

Then you can ask, what are the best policies that we could have to reduce the harms of drugs?

And with that I would say, first of all, with cannabis, take cannabis out of the criminal justice
system. I mean, let's face it, we've justified the laws against marijuana forever and ever as some
great big Child Protection Act when everybody knows that the people have who have the best access
to marijuana are in fact young people.

With respect to the harder drugs - heroin, cocaine, especially with heroin - I would say let's
allow the hard core addicts - the people who are committed to using these drugs, who are going to
get them from the black market no matter what we do, allow them to obtain it from legal sources,
from clinics, from pharmacies, whatever it may be.

It's the heroin maintenance programs you now have in Europe and Canada - something that Australians
once led in talking about.

I think those are two very pragmatic policies that could result in less death, less disease, less
crime and less waste of taxpayer money.

TRACEY BOWDEN: You are talking about substances here that can harm people physically and mentally,
can kill people. How do you ethically overcome the idea of legalising them?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Trying to create a drug-free society makes no sense. There's never been a drug
free society. There's never going to be a drug-free society.

The real challenge for us is not 'How do we keep these drugs at bay? How do we build a moat between
these drugs and our children?

The real question is, 'How do we accept the fact that these drugs are here to stay, and that the
real challenge is to learn how to live with them so they cause the least possible harm and in some
cases the greatest possible benefits?'

TRACEY BOWDEN: What do you do, say, when it reaches the point where there is the first death of
someone who was a registered heroin user - so essentially the government has if you like provided
the drug? What happens when the first person in that situation dies?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Thousands and thousands of people are dying are overdoses, right? Heroin
overdoses, pharmaceutical opiate overdoses. If we set up a legal program like they now have in the
Netherlands or they have in Germany or Switzerland or Denmark or Canada... You know, so far by the
way there have been no fatalities in those programs.

But if there was a fatality, I would say that would be one fatality in a program which has saved
hundreds of lives, saved taxpayers millions of dollars, reduced the spread of HIV and Hep C. It
would be unfortunate but the odds are that that person likely would have died if that program had
never existed in the first place.

TRACEY BOWDEN: We're told that drugs are very easy to get now. If they're legal does that mean
they're going to be even be easier to get and therefore more people will try them?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well I know at least in the United States that there are now at least three
surveys in which teenagers say it is easier to buy marijuana than it is to buy alcohol. So if ever
there were an indictment of the current marijuana prohibition policy, that seems to be it.

I mean, if marijuana were legalised it's not going to make it more available to young people 'cause
they already have easy access. What I'm saying is not 'Let's have a free for all'. What I'm saying
is not 'Let's eliminate regulations'.

What I'm saying is, 'Let's regulate this stuff to reduce the harms associated both with drugs and
with our drug control policies'.

People make the mistake of assuming that prohibition represents the ultimate form of regulation
when in fact prohibition represents the abdication of regulation.

It means that whatever you don't effectively prohibit is left in the hands of the criminals.

What I'm interested in is a sensible, intelligent, tough regulatory policy that reduces the harms
of drugs and that also reduces the harms of our failed prohibitionist policies.

TRACEY BOWDEN: Californians recently voted against legalising marijuana. What does that tell you
about where the public debate is, what the public view is at the moment?

ETHAN NADELMANN: I and my organisation the Drug Policy Alliance were deeply involved in that
campaign. We didn't start it but we played a major role. And I have to say, I never expected the
initiative would get 46.3 per cent of the vote.

I was prepared for much less than that but if anything, the nature of the debate around legalising
marijuana has been transformed in the last two years. Two years ago, that debate was considered a
fringe issue. Now it's a mainstream political issue.

By and large, what you see in the United States is a growing sentiment that although marijuana may
not be the safest drug for everybody, that we're better off taxing it, controlling it and
regulating it. And that arresting 800,000 Americans a year - over 40 per cent of all of our drug
arrests - for marijuana possession makes no sense.

TRACEY BOWDEN: Now, while you're here in Australia you're going to be speaking to people behind the
scenes, no doubt - police, medical people, maybe politicians. Do you have a sense that they want

ETHAN NADELMANN: My sense is that the number of people in Australia, especially in the upper
echelons, who privately believe it's time for a different policy, it's growing.

It's true all around the world that the number of... that there's a growing disparity between what
elected officials and other prominent individuals say publicly and what they will say privately.
What's beginning to happen is that more and more people are finally beginning to say publicly what
they would only previously say privately.

Look what just happened in Mexico, where not just the current President Calderón said 'Okay we need
a debate on legalisation' but his predecessor Vicente Fox said 'That's the answer' and his
predecessor President Zedillo said 'We need a bigger debate'.

So what you're seeing is people beginning to cross over from expressing themselves privately to
expressing themselves publicly. I think we're going to see that crossover happening in Australia in
the next year or two as well.

TRACEY BOWDEN: Do you understand that for a lot of people that big stumbling block is the fact that
these are substances that can cause psychotic episodes - can cause, potentially, schizophrenia?
Legalising something like that troubles people.

ETHAN NADELMANN: I think once you accept the reality that these drugs are here, whether we like it
or not, once you accept that we have to find ways to better control them and to minimise their
harms, then you begin to accept that criminalisation may not be the best way to deal with this.

I remember there's a Dutch scientist who was one of the first ones who showed that there may be
some link between heavy use of marijuana at a young age and premature onset of schizophrenia.

Somebody said 'So what does that say to you about legalising marijuana?'

His response is 'It says to me that's why we have to legalise, that marijuana, while it may be safe
for most people who use it, it's too dangerous to be left in the hands of the criminals. We need to
bring this above the ground where it be effectively regulated in a responsible way. We can't rely
on the criminals to effectively regulate substances which can be as dangerous as these are'.

TRACEY BOWDEN: Is there proof that your model would work?

ETHAN NADELMANN: There is proof from abroad that, for example, decriminalising marijuana and
allowing people to obtain it legally for medicinal purposes is not associated with any great
increase in use.

There is overwhelming proof published in the scientific journals that allowing committed heroin
addicts to obtain their heroin legally from a legal clinic does reduce addiction, disease, crime,
saves taxpayers money. Overwhelming proof.

There is proof now coming from Portugal - a wonderful report out just this week in the British
Journal of Criminology by Alex Stevens - that Portugal's policy of decriminalising possession of
all drugs has not resulted in an increase in drug use, but it has resulted in a reduction in crime,
reduction of HIV, hep C and other drug related ills. So there's powerful evidence.

The thing I'm at a loss to understand is Australia, which 20 years ago took the lead in the world
in saying 'Let's have a heroin maintenance trial' and then abandoned it. And now seven other
countries are doing it and some have it as a matter of national policy and in Australia you still
have politicians saying 'It would send the wrong message' as if the right message is "Let those
people die" rather than institute a policy which has been proven to work in a half a dozen foreign

That I don't get.

TRACEY BOWDEN: Ethan Nadelmann, thank you for speaking to us.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Thank you very much.

TRACEY BOWDEN: Some provocative views there on a very controversial subject and that's the program
for tonight.