02/03/2016 5:46 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

'You Can Overcome An Addiction, But You Can't Overcome A Conviction'

The major harm that most experience from their drug use is being arrested by police. In most drug-taking situations, harmful and potentially life threatening experiences can be substantially reduced, if not eliminated, through health approaches.

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Hands in handcuffs, close-up

Recently, Troy Grant, Deputy Premier, Minister for Justice and Police Minister and former member of the New South Wales Police Service, stated his complete opposition to a proposal to conduct scientific testing of pills consumed at music festivals and asserted that illicit drugs are illicit for a reason; because they are dangerous.

I believe that these claims and his 'call to arms' to defeat drugs are deeply flawed and contrary to the views held by many experts who are calling for change. As a former police officer, I too have seen the terrible harm caused by drugs. However, my experience leads me to a different conclusion. I believe we need to try another way to deal with drugs rather than continuing to criminalise users. In fact, I would go so far to say that it is policies such as criminal laws that are dangerous, not drugs per se.

To continue with our current approach toward drugs perpetuates the myth that the 'war on drugs' is somehow winnable, which it is not. If we were winning the war on drugs you'd expect drugs to be impossible to obtain, almost totally impure and very expensive. But they are not. Drugs are cheaper, purer and more freely available than ever before, and they will continue to be.

I once held views like Mr Grant's. How could you not? Cops 'on the streets' deal with people at their worst when it comes to drugs. Dealing with death and destroyed lives on a daily basis doesn't paint a pretty picture. You can begin to ask yourself: "Why don't we get tougher and throw more resources at this?" Or, alternatively: "This isn't working, we can't continue, so let's try another way".

If we take the latter approach and analyse the science and the history of drugs, illicit drugs are much more risky for a number of reasons, including, and especially, their legal status. The major harm that most experience from their drug use is being arrested by police, as Mr Grant admits doing in his previous policing life. In most drug-taking situations, harmful and potentially life threatening experiences can be substantially reduced, if not eliminated, through health approaches.

So what does work? Pragmatic, science-based policies focused on health outcomes.

For example, heroin is relatively risk-free if controlled and administered by medical and health professions. Just look at Switzerland and the UK, where heroin is now prescribed and where there have been very positive outcomes for heroin users, their families and the community. In Switzerland they have virtually stopped overdoses, prevented disease, reduced crime, and at the same time consistently shrunk the heroin market year after year -- unlike in Australia where it is growing again.

Ecstasy, or MDMA, is a relatively safe drug. It has been used to treat a range of conditions including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. It's harmful because its production is controlled by criminal networks, and it is tainted and contaminated.

Cannabis is used regularly by a significant number of people yet very few report problems, unless they are arrested by the police. We are now only just realising the potential of cannabis as a medicine, stalled for decades by prohibition.

Drug analysis and accurate information can and does help. Contrary to Mr Grant's views that pill testing is of no value and tantamount to supporting the illicit drug trade, the scientific and internationally accepted research is conclusive: it saves lives and doesn't encourage drug use.

The current drug prohibition approach has failed and we need to look at new approaches. We can't keep hitting our head against the wall and hope to get a different result. This will be difficult and challenging for the many groups, especially police, as they have a vested interest in maintaining the 'war on drugs'. The war on drugs provides many benefits to police: more resources and more powers which leads to more arrests and more seizures of drugs. And so the cycle continues.

More recently, many people, especially former police, are questioning the true cost of drug prohibition and the 'war on drugs' -- they are saying "let's try another way". Former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Ken Lay said, "We can't arrest our way out of this issue" and former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has called for policy change in his role with Australia21.

Groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), made up of current and former police, have been formed in the USA, Great Britain and now Australia. LEAP police have 'broken ranks' and are being more open and honest about the true cost of illicit drug policies. They are speaking out against the myths and misconceptions of a system that is deeply flawed and costing lives.

Police involved in LEAP have a catch cry: "You can overcome an addiction, however you can't overcome a conviction." When potentially the most harmful outcome from drug use is a criminal conviction, then we are truly in a state of harm maximisation, not minimisation.