Thursday, May 08, 2008

The true costs of prohibition

On Tuesday Dr Alex Wodak made headlines with his suggestion that cannabis should be sold in Post offices.

Today, Miranda Devine berates Dr Wodak with the usual grab-bag of prohibitionist spin, even as another story in the same edition of the SMH describes yet another death that would not have occurred if illicit drugs were legal and regulated ('Jealousy over drug profit led to killing').

The rhetorical  'smoking gun' of Ms Devine's headline takes on a more sinister and realistic aspect in the light of the second story, which also gives us insight into the shady world of big-time drug dealing that can flourish only under prohibition.

Meanwhile, police have objected to Dr Wodak's statements linking prohibited drugs with police corruption.

I understand why the police are offended but there is a long and undeniable history of such corruption, more lately in Victoria.

But prohibition causes deeper failures in policing. For example, a vacant house in our street was recently broken into (probably by a drug addict) and the garage doors left open. This made our house and those of all our neighbours exposed as the breach provided easy access to otherwise well secured properties via the back yards.

We called police who did precisely nothing. We called again. Nothing. Finally about 24 hours later we tracked down the owner who came and repaired the broken locks.

The next day, however, I saw a virtual platoon of police walking up our street headed by a sniffer dog. These squads search sometimes hundreds of people in a week but achieve an arrest rate in the order of only a single-figure percentile, according to the NSW Ombudsman's report. This report also documented more than 2,000 searches on public transport over a year which netted no traffickable quantity of any drug.

What a waste of resources, and what a failure to protect the public from actual crime! If we had rung police and said there was marihuana growing in the garage, I bet they would have been there in force.

The true costs of prohibition need to be properly considered in the debate about regulated supply.

PS: I don't think Post offices would be suitable cannabis outlets and agree with the majority of pollers in the Herald yesterday who preferred licensed outlets. Only 24% said it should remain illegal.


Anonymous said...

Some sniffer dog patrols in the cross detect armed weapons. Gun powder, gun oils etc. Up to 23 different smells can be detected.

More often than not they are not drug detection dogs.

The Editor said...

Dogs detecting weapons and explosives I have no problem with. Those things potentially harm other people.

But I very much doubt the statement 'more often than not they are not drug detection dogs'. This was certainly not the case when the Ombudsman's report came out.

Do you have any evidence?

Anonymous said...

Only what the police told me when I asked them if they had found any drugs. Also when I was asked if I had any plastic bags to pick up poop I asked if dog was drug or weapon sniffer. Two times for me.

The police said that people were misinformed if these dogs were always for drugs. They also described the different scents those particular dogs were trained for.

Quite often I use to hear weapons being fired into (I presume ) the sky.

The Editor said...

It's true they are smart enough to train the dogs to detect multiple smells. However they don't target nightclub queues, Big Day Out or Mardi Gras Parties looking primarily for guns, I am sure.

All the publicity around these raids are about drugs.

And these days every bit of police spin mentions that people shouldn't buy ecstasy etc because you don't know what you are actually getting.

This of course is a symptom of prohibition and one of its real dangers. See previous post on this October 2004

Anonymous said...

SMH 15 May 2008
SMH 15 May 2008

Miranda Devine

Puff goes the drug liberaliser

The photograph of Mercedes Corby apparently pulling on a pipe, which was put to her in court and appeared in newspapers all week courtesy of her defamation case against Channel Seven, must delight her sister Schapelle, locked up in a Bali jail until 2024 for cannabis importation.

Mercedes said she had only been "posing" in the picture and had not smoked marijuana since she was "young and silly" in her teens. But the image can't help Schapelle's pleas of innocence in Indonesia, where anti-drugs campaigners picketed her trial to demand the death penalty.

Diverting though the snapshots of Mercedes have been, they lead me to a confession: I made a mistake in last week's column about the drug liberaliser Dr Alex Wodak, for which I have been chided by numerous readers. It was not the Mercy nuns who founded St Vincent's Hospital and therefore are accountable for the irresponsible pronouncements of its head of drug and alcohol services, but the Sisters of Charity, who arrived in Sydney from Ireland in 1838 to minister to the poor and disadvantaged. Apologies to the Mercy nuns.

The question still needs to be asked of the Sisters of Charity: how do you solve a problem like Alex Wodak?

Wodak has been working for the nuns for 26 years, but his presidency of two prominent drug-liberalising organisations, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and the International Harm Reduction Association, colours his motives. He appears unmoved by mounting evidence that cannabis is not a soft drug but among the most harmful, and that prohibition is the most certain way to reduce drug use, as Sweden demonstrates.

Hence his preposterous proposal to sell cannabis at post offices, made at the Mardi Grass festival in Nimbin. Wodak took offence at last week's column, firing off a letter to the editor, claiming legalising cannabis would not lead to increased cannabis consumption. "Evidence should trump intuition," he wrote, and cited a 2004 study comparing cannabis use in laissez faire Amsterdam with relatively prohibitionist San Francisco: "39 per cent of San Francisco residents had smoked cannabis more than 25 times, compared with 12 per cent of Amsterdam residents."

Unfortunately for Wodak, Dr Don Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, and Wayne Hall, Professor of Public Health Policy, University of Queensland, had his number, so to speak. They also wrote a letter to the editor, pointing out the flaws in his research, which compared apples with oranges. "The San Francisco sample was older, less likely to have children and more likely to have been unemployed in the preceding two years. These factors may be the reason for the higher level of consumption in San Francisco," they wrote.

Their coup de "grass", if you pardon the pun, was NSW research showing "most regular cannabis users say they would use it more often if it was legal. Consumption increased substantially in the Netherlands after the creation of a de facto legal market."

The world has moved on from Wodak's neo-liberal drug dreams. Even Britain last week toughened cannabis laws, reversing its 2004 liberalisation, arguing the public must be protected from newly potent "skunk".

US research this week from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy shows teenagers who use marijuana are at high risk of depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and suicide; those who smoke it just once a month are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than non-smokers. Last week our new National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre reported that half of all drug treatments for 10- to 19-year-olds relate to cannabis, compared with 25 per cent for alcohol and 10 per cent for amphetamines.

Wodak must be aware of the success Sweden has had with its zero tolerance approach to illicit drug use, coupled with generous (coercive) treatment programs.

As last year's United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report, Sweden's Successful Drug Policy, said: "Lifetime prevalence and regular drug use among students and among the general population are considerably lower than in the rest of Europe." Just 7 per cent of 15- to 16- year-olds in Sweden had tried cannabis compared with 21 per cent in Europe.

Sweden also has some of the lowest levels of injecting drug-use-related HIV/AIDS infections. Young Swedes are more aware of the dangers of cannabis, with 83 per cent of 15- to 16-year-olds surveyed saying there was a "great risk" of harm from regular cannabis use, and 30 per cent perceiving a great risk in even using it once or twice.

Thanks to experts such as Wodak who continue to push the laissez-faire line on drugs, the same cannot be said for Australia, which ranks in the top 10 drug users of 193 nations in the UN's 2007 World Drug Report.

Manly councillor Pat Daley has grown increasingly concerned about illegal drugs in Manly. He says the recent focus on curbing binge drinking, which he supported, has been at the expense of drug enforcement. He believes drug liberalisers are "using the alcohol stuff as a cover to normalise and legitimise illicit drugs".

In a motion he plans to put forward to council on Monday night he will ask for "increased … enforcement of the law in relation to the distribution and possession of illegal drugs" on The Corso. He claims police "are basically not enforcing the law - they have basically given up in relation to [drug] possession". Doctors at Manly Hospital complain about drug-related violence, and yet whenever Daley raises the drugs problem he says he is "howled down" by the independent Manly mayor, Peter MacDonald, and other councillors who have branded him an "extremist".

The relative of a 28-year-old cannabis user who has been in and out of mental health wards for the past five years rang me yesterday to rail against those who claim it is a benign drug. He is convinced this "bright, run-of-the-mill kid's" psychiatric problems are due to heavy use of cannabis from the age of 16. "His life is pretty much on hold, if not wrecked."

How many more ruined lives would result from Dr Wodak's prescription?

The Editor said...

Devine is no fool, yet her continuing spin on this subject is very foolish.

She asks: "How many more ruined lives would result from Dr Wodak's prescription?"

The answer is, a lot fewer. The giant flaw in the prohibitionist creed is that all these supposed harms of illicit drugs are occurring under prohibition. The more they exaggerate the tiny incidence of questionable harms, the more they demonstrate that prohibition does not work. It is a system which makes any drug available to young teenagers with zero quality control. Regulated supply would not stop this entirely but it would certainly put the dampers on supply to that market.

Wayne Hall and Don Weatherburn have strong agendas of their own. Weatherburn recently wrote a story in the SMH seriously positing that you have to inflict harm to prevent harm. That's like saying you have to kill a patient to save them. Or invade Iraq in the name of peace.

Hall, I have been told, came a cropper when his research demonstrating cannabis dependence had not allowed for the co-consumption of tobacco. Of course his subjects had withdrawal symptoms.

The whole debate, including Devine's selective distortions, suffers because all the research it is based on is flawed. Why? Almost all the research that gets funded is that which looks for harm. You could make anything look bad that way. Start with football, rock fishing and skiing, let alone cars. If you don't believe me, read the first paragraph of any accredited research organisation's mission statement.

Despite $billions of research over decades, a convincing picture of harm has not been established. And Devine quoting Gordon Brown's desperate bid for political points is totally dishonest -- his own experts advised strongly against it but he ignored them.

Sweden is another furphy, but I am getting bored dealing with right-wing idealogues who ignore fact and evidence.

Devine is part of the problem. Wodak is part of the solution. You've gotta admire her front, though.

The Editor said...

And another thing... if cannabis use has slightly increased upon liberalisation, that's probably a good thing. If people drank less alcohol in the equation, net good has been done as cannabis is far less harmful than alcohol. As witnessed by the emergency doctor who wrote to the Herald about the countless alcohol-related cases of trauma he regularly dealt with compared to zero marihuana casualties.

And if the increase in cannabis mirrored a decrease in harder drugs, as appears to be the case in Amsterdam, ditto.

Prohibitionist evangelists spreading moral panic need to take a reality check.

Anonymous said...

Pot smokers 'double' schizophrenia risk17:00 AEST Wed May 21 2008

Dope smokers have a 40 per cent increased risk of developing schizophrenia, and taking it regularly drives the risk up two-fold, Australian research shows.

A new study by psychiatrists has reviewed the latest evidence of links between cannabis use and mental illness, concluding the association is "stronger and clearer than ever".

A pot smoker is 40 per cent more likely to suffer a psychotic episode than a non-smoker, according to the review of major published international research.

And for people who smoke daily over long periods their risk is 200 per cent higher.

"On the world stage, Australians excel in smoking cannabis, so there are very many people who fit into this category," said lead researcher Dr Martin Cohen, a psychiatrist at the Hunter New England Mental Health Service.

"In fact we're number one in the world.

"We know now more than ever that this bodes badly for our mental health."

The review, published in the latest Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, calculates that about 14 per cent of all cases of psychosis would never have occurred had the patient not picked up a joint.

A third of all Australians have smoked at least once in their life, with about 300,000 using daily. And while all had increased their risk to some degree, there was growing evidence that genetics predisposed some people even more.

Scientists have found a gene called COMT that, when faulty, is unable to break down the brain chemical dopamine.

An overload of dopamine triggers psychosis and, as cannabis produces an excess of the chemical, people with this "fault" are vulnerable.

Between 10 and 25 per cent of the population are believed to have the faulty gene, but as yet there is no way to test for it.

The risk is also higher for people who start smoking young and those who use heavily.

A 1998 national drug survey of 14 to 19 year olds showed 20 per cent had smoked in the last week, and 20 per cent of these took their first puff before they turned 12.

"These teenagers are the ones we really need to worry about because their use is changing a developing brain," Dr Cohen said.

Professor Jan Copeland, director of the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre, said the levels of cannabis use had declined significantly since the 1998 survey, especially among school-aged Australians.

"But while we're deterring many from ever trying, established regular users are still finding it very difficult to give up, putting them at risk of not just psychosis but depression as well," she said.

The Editor said...

This rubbish is classic prohibitionist spin. It uses one of the classic distortions by talking about 'risks being 200% higher'. 200% of what? If the base incidence of schizophrenia is, say .4 of a percent, 200% brings it up to a far less significant 1.6%. Not so dramatic, eh?

And all these 'harm-based arguments simply support regulated supply because these so-called horrific consequences are occurring under prohibition, so they are really an argument against it.

Then there's the other thing: everything has a risk of harm. The usual rational human response is to assess the benefits and then minimise the harm by appropriate behaviour. Rusted-on prohibitionists cannot see this in regards to drugs -- they have a blind spot rootesd in their own social prejudice. The anonymous person who keeps posting these long articles (instead of just posting a link) NEVER counters any of my arguments; rather, like all inflexible conservatives, just keeps repeating the same mantra.

The simple fact that schizophrenia has not increased in line with the increase in cannabis use over recent decades seems to be beyond the comprehension of these old-world fossils. And they can't bear to bring that fact into their distorted diatribes.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been around the drug and rehabilitation scene for over 10 years, I do believe there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest the correlation. I am happy to see substantial gains in the research into the medical conditions described as a result of marijuana usgae.

Anonymous said...

Pot is NOT a harmless drug. My son smoked for several years and is now suffering pyschosis. He was admitted to hospital and last week snuck out when staff were not looking.We have no idea where he is.This drug has ruined his life. Please do not smoke this poison.

The Editor said...

You're not Robinson Crusoe my friend. I am in the same situation and know exactly what you are going through.

And no-one is denying that pot is potentially harmful for some. The debate is about whether prohibition is an effective way to address the issue or whether it in fact causes far more damage and injustice than it prevents.

It's a simple fact that, under prohibition, your son and mine were able to get the stuff freely -- on my observation, more easily than it is for an under-18 to get alcohol. My position is that a system of regulated supply would make it much easier to moderate a child's use.

It's also a fact that the vast majority of smokers, including heavy users, suffer little or no lasting problems -- certainly a lot less than alcohol or tobacco users -- and have a damn good time to boot. So it's patently not a 'poison' in any usual sense. When kids see this, they discount the facile 'just say no' message that prohibitionists trot out, and smoke their heads off, usually with tobacco (creating a dependence).

What is really needed is control and rationing of the product, and sensible messaging that targets at-risk users and makes them recognise warning symptoms. One thing I noticed as a possible precursor to the onset of psychosis was that smoking produced a deadening and anti-social effect, the opposite of the normal effect.

Research into recognisable precursors would be a lot more effective in preventing harm than the present simplistic model of just looking for correlations with harm and using that to justify prohibition.

And in my case, I still could not say that cannabis caused the psychosis anyway as there were a number of other factors in the child's history (premature birth for one) that increase risk of psychosis.

But instead of looking at the whole picture, agenda-driven research all too often simply notes a connection with cannabis and conservatives claim a causal relationship. It isn't that simple.

For a good rundown of the debate, see some typically distorted spin produced by Jan Copeland of the absurdly named National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre at and pay particular note to the contributions in the comments by 'Rumpus' (go back to May 2) who address the distortions very effectively.

I note Ms Copeland has not rebutted a single point.

Sorry to hear about your trouble, and thanks for your interest.

Anonymous said...

Intersting that you say "Miranda Devine (SMH) is no fool". I generally find her point of view pretty creepy myself.

The Editor said...

I agree about Devine, yet her writing is excellent and indicates an acute intelligence. That's what makes her so dangerous.

You need a special talent to write good tabloid. I would like to know whether she really believes what she writes or is just playing devil's advocate.

Given that she is intelligent, the lack of logic and evidence in many of her assertions makes me think the latter. In that case she must be very, very cynical.

Work like hers fuels the intolerant right and influences readers who have little knowledge of the subject or who lack analytical skill. As her writing is pro-war, anti-conservation and supports prohibition (which in turn is responsible for most imprisonments in the free world and countless needless deaths) I sometimes think she is simply evil.

Terry Wright said...

"What is really needed is control and rationing of the product, and sensible messaging that targets at-risk users and makes them recognise warning symptoms."

Ah, something so logical yet so incompressible by those who design our drug policies. We have to scrutinise these morons as to their reasoning for policies that continually fail.

Anonymous said...

Cannabis can cause mental illness. So it is not harmless.

My view is that if ther is a law and it is being broken well if you are foolish enough to break it there may be consequences for your actions.

To all the anti police out there, just remember they have courage to do what you fear to, and there are over 700 police officers on the National Police Memorial.

Most of the comments here are ignorant and fail to consider that most police take an Oath or Affirmation to do a job that is dirty,thankless and down right dangerous. Yes they volunteer to do it and whilst there is a minority of corrupt police the vast majority are not. Who are you going to call the next time you need help?

Re the dogs, there are a number of different types of dogs being used in NSW and to great affect. The K9 doggs are broken up into General Purpose, Drug Dogs, Explosive Detection Dogs and Cadaver Dogs. They too have a dangerous dogs. If you are concerned about drug dogs, don't take drugs out! If drug dogs have been used in public areas including the Mardi Gras, Big Day Out etc, too bad. If you have not committed an offence then you have nothing to worry about.

Wodak is off in fairy land if he believes drug prohibition will assist society.

My son is 3 & 1/2 years old. There is NO WAY IN HELL I support Wodaks leftist rantings. I've seen the damage that results from drug use from mental illness to transition to hard drugs! Mainstream Australia wants tough laws on drugs. Wodak's comments on linkages between cannabis and corruption is flawed as he CANNOT back it up. If he has proof go to the relevant anti corruption bodies otherwise all his comments amount to his pulp.

As for your view on police spin and their take on people not buying e's, it is without a doubt accurate. You have no idea what substance you are injesting because the people involved in the manufacture of this insidious drug delight in poisoning people. If you don't want to hear the truth just keep reading kingscrosstimes.

The Editor said...

The above comment is a good summary of the classic prohibitionist position. I can positively refute every single point (and have) but my time is limited.

A few points though: "Mainstream Australia wants tough laws on drugs."

– in fact it does not if you look at the relevant questions in the Household Drug Surveys. And don't forget all the damage you refer to happened under prohibition. It does not work.

"My son is 3 & 1/2 years old. There is NO WAY IN HELL I support Wodaks leftist rantings."

– You are right to be concerned about your son. But the fact is that when he get to high school (or even sooner) he will be able to get any drug on the market and not know what is in them. Under Wodak's 'leftist' scheme the supply would be regulated, quality controlled and possibly rationed. Abusers would have to go through doctors to get supply and under-18s would be slowed down by proof-of-age requirements. Your son would in fact be far better protected from drugs and drug abuse.

"I've seen the damage that results from drug use from mental illness to transition to hard drugs!"

–The mental illness argument has some basis but the actual risk is minuscule in percentage terms, far less than many culturally mainstream activities, and no-one has established a causal link. Schizophrenia has not increased along with the increase in cannabis use over several decades. Soft drugs do not lead to hard drugs any more than alcohol or mothers milk. In fact in the illegal market access to, say, cannabis, gives access to other drugs as they tend to come through the same dealer. Under regulated supply there could be different access streams.

"Wodak's comments on linkages between cannabis and corruption is flawed as he CANNOT back it up."

He does not have to. Our history is littered with convictions of corrupt drug cops, starting with Mark Standen and working back through Underbelly the Manly scandal etc etc.

The Editor said...

For my anonymous friend:

Here's a link to a good balanced piece with references explaining why cannabis should be decriminalised.

An open-minded reading might allay some of the fears you have for your son (and others).