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The War On Drugs Has Failed. But What Should Peace Look Like?

I'm on a quest to interview some of the world’s greatest minds to imagine what a post-war-on-drugs world might look like in our own country.

13/04/2017 9:46 AM AEST | Updated 18/04/2017 10:50 AM AEST
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"Countries like Portugal, Canada and parts of the US are starting to create approaches that reflect a changing social sentiment in our approach to recreational drugs."

Along with celibacy, eugenics and botox, the war on drugs has to be one of humanity's worst attempts to control our biology. What began with the prohibition movement against alcohol in the 1920s has become subsequent moral and political attacks on marijuana, cocaine, heroin and now amphetamines (aka ice).

This quixotic mission of the past hundred years has failed to prevent the use of drugs so significantly that there is now a black market that generates over $1 trillion a year in revenue from the US alone -- roughly the same revenue as the entire global pharmaceutical industry.

We now have some countries that are waking up from the hangover of a century of bad policy. Countries like Portugal, Canada and parts of the US are starting to create approaches that reflect a changing social sentiment in our approach to recreational drugs.

Our approach to drugs in Australia is irrational... We love prime ministers who can skol beer but we vilify young people in the media as 'binge drinkers' for doing the exact same thing on a Saturday night.

I'm curious as to what we might learn and apply in Australia, so this year I'm on a quest to interview some of the world's greatest minds to imagine what a post-war-on-drugs world might look like in our own country.

I'm doing this because I think our approach to drugs in Australia is irrational. On one hand, it's okay to hand out amphetamines (ritalin) for ADHD but then, on the other, we ask Australians to dob in their dealer for handing out very similar chemical compounds on a weekend.

On one hand we deny clean needles to heroin users but on the other hand we allow people to become clinically addicted to pain medication (or hillbilly heroin as it has come to be known).

We love prime ministers who can skol beer, but we vilify young people in the media as 'binge drinkers' for doing the exact same thing on a Saturday night.

So what should we do? How do we make rational drug choices as individuals? How do we make rational drug policies as a community? I am on a mission to have some honest conversations with people who might have a few ideas for what we should do.

My first interviewee is the Oxford philosopher AC Grayling. Professor Grayling is a world-renowned author, lecturer and proponent of the idea that we should legalise all drugs. I caught up with him in a Sydney cafe this week to talk about his new book The Age of Genius, (which explores the creation of the modern mind in the 17th Century) to see what he might have to offer by way of philosophy when it comes to approaches to drug policy.

One of his ideas is that recreational drugs should be regulated in exactly the same way we regulate alcohol and nicotine. His argument for this approach is two-fold. First, the idea that the point of laws is to reduce the aggregate harms experienced rather than increase them, and second, the idea that in an autonomous society you have experimentation that actually moves a society forward.

Grayling contends that far from prevent the harms we are trying to avoid through their criminalisation, by making drugs illegal we inadvertently increase them:

"[Our current approach to drug laws] turn ordinary people into criminals. It wastes police time. It is an utter waste of resources. The anxiety of it is hard to understand. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog. People who are badly affected by drug use and abuse are mainly affected by the illegality of drugs in order to get hold of them."

Supporting this argument is the telling reality that, currently, over half of people in prisons are there because of the criminality of drugs. Moreover, research shows that over 50 percent of people who have a diagnosable mental health disorder also have a concurrent drug or alcohol problem. There is a great inequity in our society in which, although we are using drugs for the same biological reasons, when it comes down to it -- rich people go to rehab and poor people go to prison.

Grayling's second point is a more unconventional one; it is the idea that autonomy of choice actually helps us to push society forward through experimentation.

"I like the argument of Mill in his essay On Liberty -- it follows that if you allow people to make choices to try many things you get many different experiments and human possibilities and that way we will discover the best, we will discover the truth. Whereas if you narrow everything down and you try and control it you miss out on a great deal of what might be worthwhile."

This is an interesting idea. It raises the question that if there were more options than alcohol and nicotine for the drugs we use in our everyday life would the market find more efficient, less harmful drugs for the same purpose.

In pharmaceutical drugs we see generation after generation of drug development, but when it comes to recreational drugs we are stuck with the same few culprits. It's kind of like doctors using 1950's medication to deal with today's diseases. Just like we have reinvented anti-depressants, what if there was a similar investment in the reinvention of alcohol or nicotine that were tailored to different biologies?

I concluded my interview with AC Grayling with a question around what drugs he uses. He laughed at the question:

"I don't use drugs out of sheer timidity, because what passes for a brain up here is what I have for an instrument. Like having a violin and bashing it. But I've made up my mind that when I pass 90, I'm going to take up opium so I can go out in a high."

At 68, that's a couple of decades away. The question is, will he go out on a high or in handcuffs?

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