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23 November 2021

The War On Drugs is often considered to be an American phenomenon, but is something that has been pursued by many nations. Australia is no exception to this. Australia’s War On Drugs dates back to racial policies from the 1800s, and has done little more than waste taxpayer dollars and harm people’s lives. Indeed, Archibald Meston, a Queensland politician, went so far as to remove Aboriginals from society and isolate them on Fraser Island with inadequate supplies, and pursued a eugenist-inspired policy of “racial isolation” because he believed that their use of opium was indicative of a broader problem with the Aboriginal people.

During the 1800s there was a strong opium trade in Australia. This was a result of the First and Second Opium Wars opening China up to the British opium trade. This created a large market in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia. During the gold rushes of the middle of the century, there was an influx of Chinese migrants. Opium was used by many in a recreational manner, but it was used as payment for the labour of Aboriginals in many cases.

The various colonial governments were concerned about opium use. In Queensland, the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld) was passed, preventing the sale of opium to Aboriginals, with the support of Archibald Meston. However, the government used this concern about opium as a way to control Aboriginal communities, with author Fiona Foley going so far as to suggest that it served as a “Trojan horse” that allowed for the Act to be passed, which created a segregated society, and would remain in effect until the mid-1900s. This took Meston’s experiment in segregation and introduced it throughout the entire state.

Archibald Weston blamed the Chinese for the introduction of opium into Australia. He was not alone in believing this, with the Opium Duties Act 1857 (NSW) enacted decades earlier, intentionally placing customs duties on the importing of opium, a policy that is suggested to have been aimed at the Chinese. This followed a trend of anti-Chinese legislation. Much of this was the result of the use of opium.

The War On Drugs continued beyond the colonial days. In 1926, Australia outlawed cannabis, followed by a ban on heroin in 1953, despite medical opposition within Australia. Both of these bannings predate the rise of the recreational use of drugs in Australian society, which was partly the result of US soldiers on leave during the Vietnam War, demonstrating that the laws were ineffective at achieving their intended purpose. The response was to create separate offences for the supply, consumption, and possession of drugs.

Democracies pride themselves on punishments that are proportionate to the crime; however, that does not appear to be the case in Australia. Take Queensland, for example. Under section 6 of the Drug Misuse Act 1986 (Qld), supplying drugs can lead to a sentence of up 25 years, while section 4 states that supplying includes offering to supply, or even taking “preparatory acts” to supplying. Indeed, it can even include the “sharing of a marijuana cigarette.” Finally, possession can lead to a 25 year sentence, depending on the drugs involved, under section 9.

With such strict drug laws, one would expect that drug usage is low. However, it is at an all-time high, with 9 million Australians over the age of 14 having used illegal drugs at some point in their lifetime, out of a population of 25 million people.  According to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australians spend $11.3 billion per year on illicit drugs. This is despite uniform laws criminalising drug use, with condemnation from the Liberal Senator for the Australian Capital Territory and the Australian Federal Police Commissioner when the ACT considered decriminalising the possession of small amounts of some drugs. Yet the public is increasingly in favour of the decriminalisation of drugs, with 41% of Australians supporting legalising cannabis in 2019, compared to 37% opposing it.

It has been suggested by Drug Policy Australia that the most appropriate solution to the drug war in Australia would be the for the government to legalise all drugs, but for the government to regulate them. One argument is that allowing doctors to prescribe drugs and monitor their patients’ intake would help remove the drug trade from dark alleyways. However, they go on to suggest that government regulation would mean that consumers would know the concentration of the drugs, comparing it to knowing the strength of alcohol, and how that prevents overdosing. However, central to that claim is an argument that in the free market suppliers would not be willing to provide information to consumers regarding the purity of the drugs.  In fact, it would be beneficial for suppliers to include this, because in a transparent market if suppliers did not list the purity of the drugs they would lose customers. Because the consumers would be dying from overdosing, the supplier would gain a poor reputation, sending potential consumers to their competitors instead.

Any argument that government is more effective at making decisions than the free market is predicated on a belief that the government knows what is best for the consumers, even better than the consumers themselves do. This is because it suggests that the consumers would not care about the purity of what they are consuming and their risk of overdosing and dying. Such an argument is flawed, because the consumers know what is best for themselves. Mark Thornton suggests that illegal drugs “are more dangerous and potent than if they were produced legally and commercially.” If the government was to regulate the industry, and had differing opinions to most of the market, the industry would once again turn to the black markets to provide to the consumers. It would therefore be better for all parties involved if the government stopped waging a war on drugs, and instead let the market determine what is best for the industry.

Legalising drug use saves legal resources and taxpayer dollars that are tied up in policing and in enforcing drug policies that have proven to be unsuccessful. Allowing the market to regulate itself means that decisions will be made more in-line with the market’s demands. If drugs are merely to be legalised and regulated, it is only a matter of time before people resort to the black market. And drugs made on the black market are more potent and lead to overdoses, which is a major concern in Australia, so legalising drugs also has the potential to save lives.

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Stuart Jeffery, aka LibertyDownUnder, is the founder of the Australian Liberty Network. He is also the host of the Gumtree of Liberty and Gumtree of Liberty Live podcasts, and is editor of the Liberty Review. Stuart is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts, majoring in international relations, at the University of Southern Queensland.

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