Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ex-Prosecutor explains what's wrong with the War on Drugs

Nick Cowdery speaking at Aprés restaurant
in Potts Point this morning
This morning on World No Tobacco Day Nick Cowdery, until recently head of Public Prosecutions in NSW, spoke at a business breakfast in Kings Cross hosted by the Potts Point and Kings Cross Partnership.

His message supporting the regulated legalisation of drugs was well crafted, emphasising the criminal enforcement sanctions that would still exist under legalisation, neatly heading off the usual 'legalisation would lead to a free-for-all' assertions of prohibitionists.

The rate of tobacco smoking is steadily being reduced, he pointed out, even though it was legal. Illicit drugs on the other hand are as popular as ever.

"Criminal law is a singularly inappropriate mechanism for dealing with a market," he said before explaining that since people first chewed on a plant and found that it altered the way they thought and felt, or ate some fermented fruit, they "have rather liked the idea".

This produced a demand and that always inspires someone to create a supply, and voila, you have a market.

Enter the War on Drugs, modelled on the failed prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, and the players in the market, competing for market share, are by definition criminals. This market worldwide turns over many billions of dollars each year, and has unsavoury offshoots such as narco-terrorism.

Criminal sanctions are notably ineffective against this international gravy train, because the easy profits are a certainty and the risk of capture relatively small.

Meanwhile in the USA, home of both prohibition and the GFC, $51 billion per year is being spent on the War on Drugs and 1,660,582 people have been arrested on non-violent drug offences. One in 100 adults in the USA are in jail, the highest incarceration rate in the world. A million of these are the parents of 2.2 million kids, 1.7 million of whom are under 12 years old.

This is why reformers say prohibition causes more harm than drug abuse.

Meanwhile in cash-strapped California, where a proposal to legalise cannabis was recently narrowly defeated, prisons are at 200% capacity and the Federal Supreme Court has ordered the state to reduce it to 137% of capacity within two years.

Mr Cowdery cited Portugal's experience, where the decriminalisation of all drugs in 2001 has not resulted in increased use, contrary to the fear campaigns of prohibitionists.


Terry Wright said...

When someone this intelligent and experienced in the field of prosecuting crime speaks out, we should all take notice.

Nick Cowdery is as much of an expert on the matter as anyone on the planet so when he insists that we are making a massive mistake with our current strategy and offers a logical alternative, backed by so many other experts, the government should automatically take on his recommendations.

Seriously, when is the government going to finally listen to these experts who all support the same conclusion? How much evidence do we need and how many experts does it take to convince law makers and the Gary Christians of this world that maybe we got it wrong?

James Rowe said...

I'm in comlete agreement with Terry and second his praise of Cowdrey's clear-sighted vision. Need it be stated that Cowdrey is informed by years of legal practice in which he has watched potentially wonderful lives and contributions to society dashed by a system that reduces a person - in the eyes of said society - to no more than a criminal record.

It's so galling that emotive misinformation splashed through the mainstream media continues to allow political leaders to abdicate their responsibility to implment good public policy - that is, policy with a clear benefit for society as opposed to costly in countless lives and DOLLARS. Sadly in this cynical self-interested world, even neo-liberal conservatives do a 180 on drug policy when it saves them significant $$$ (see some of the market liberals advocating legalisation in the US for example) - it moved self-described 'zero tolerance' advocate John Howard Howard to pour unprecedented $ into Needle & Syringe Programs due to the billions in public health savings from avoided Hep C and HIV infections.

Politicians has a responsibility to lead - and leadership - even if cloaked in self-serving statements of respresentative democracy and doing what 'the people' want is subordinated to pure populism when 'the people' had been fed 50+ years of alarmist misinformation and can not offer an informed perspcetive (let alone the expert input that the likes of a Nick Cowdrey). In such circumstances, leadership means educating the public about the necessity of change for their benefit and the long term benefit of what may actually be a truly inclusive society as a consequence. It's no different to any other issues requiring public education - carbon tax perhaps?

Thanks for sharing this Mike, I was wishing I could have been there when reading of the presentation, so it's most thoughtful of you to share it.