Sunday, December 07, 2008
Prohibition is bursting our jails
"Jails bursting at the seams," the front page of the Sun-Herald shouted at me as I lined up at the supermarket this morning to buy my breakfast and lunch ingredients.
Back home, the SMH graphic you see was coincidentally up on my monitor. It illustrates the fall in burglaries paralleling the heroin drought of the past few years, clearly showing how much of the crime we bear and the justice system we pay for is caused by addicts who need wads of cash to buy prohibitively expensive illicit drugs.
Yes, we know they shouldn't, but the fact is they do.
While the government's response seems to be to privatise jails, neither they nor the media have the guts or the intelligence to question prohibition, a major contributor to the overcrowding problem, even as it is falling apart at the seams.
One classic response of conservatives is to claim that legal, controlled availability would increase drug use and they have small selective data sets to support this.
But globally, the trend shows the opposite: Tough-on-drugs countries almost all have higher rates of drug usage than relatively liberal countries – for example rates of cannabis use, heroin use and incarceration in The Netherlands are about half those of the US, home of the War on Drugs. In the UK, cannabis use declined significantly during the time it was downgraded to a Category C substance, in line with worldwide trends. Despite this, an electorally challenged Gordon Brown has ignored the advice of his senior advisory panel and upgraded cannabis to Category B.
In Australia, states which have decriminalised to some extent show usage trends similar to other states who have not.
If our jails are bursting at the seams, let's look at the role of prohibition in that and whether it is in fact achieving any of its aims.
PS 8/12/08: An article in The Wall Street Journal celebrates the anniversary of the end of prohibition in 1933. It points out that people at the time not only understood prohibition had failed but also could remember a time before prohibition so they were not so alarmed at the prospect of legalisation. It's an eloquent piece. Read it here.