The war on drugs is a war against our own children, friends and families
Our current drug laws largely penalise the young and poor, not the drug kingpins you'd expect.
People use psychoactive drugs for many reasons from pleasure to masking psychological and physical pain.
Imagine sitting in your home with friends, some are having a glass of wine and some are smoking a cigarette on the balcony after a calorie-laden dinner ... a loud bang and yelling at the door silences everyone as the reality hits that you are about to be arrested and charged for drinking, smoking and unhealthy eating.
A ludicrous scenario of course as what adults choose to do in their own homes that may or may not be good for their own health is surely their own choice. Now, replace the alcohol, fatty food or cigarettes with cannabis or another drug classed as illegal and all of sudden such rationality disappears. There was a time when same-sex consenting adults in their own private residences engaging in sexual behaviour were branded criminals. The harm, stigma and discrimination this created forced such laws to be abandoned. Turn the subject to drug use and suddenly it's a war with far too many people fearful of being branded as soft on drugs. Instead they accept the war and never question its effectiveness or true cost. However, don't believe the hype about it being focused on the "Mr Bigs" – the evidence shows this is just not true. In 2014, more than 110,000 drug arrests occurred around the country, with more than 80 per cent of those arrested and charged for personal use and more than a 1000 people a week for possession of cannabis. No "Mr Bigs" here just a lot of people – generally young and poor – landed with a criminal record and all the lifelong problems that creates. As for the true monetary cost of this approach, it is staggering and can only be measured in the many billions each year. To put it simply, we are fighting a war against our own children, friends and families and spending extraordinary sums of money for little positive effect. It is worth remembering that if we actually arrested everyone who used a currently illegal drug in the last year it would mean having to arrest more than a million Australians according to our latest national survey. We have to accept that human behaviour is flawed. We don't always make choices in our best interests and drugs are part of this complex picture and have been for thousands of years. People use psychoactive drugs for all manner of reasons from pleasure to masking psychological and physical pain. The arbitrary nature of laws which allows someone over 18 to legally purchase any quantity of alcohol and tobacco to use but not other substances of similar or less harm makes little sense to any objective observer. Is it the level of harm to oneself, to others or is some other measure being used to assess legality? It should be no surprise that perverse decisions create perverse outcomes. Our new war on synthetic drugs has created just such an outcome. The booming market in synthetic cannabis and other drugs occurs despite them being more dangerous because they are easier and cheaper to produce, and market as legal (albeit for limited times), not because they are desired by users above the drugs they seek to mimic. This does not mean there should be a free pass for the choices made, but it is the behaviour associated with the drug use that we should judge. Drink driving is rightly illegal – not the act of drinking. If your drug and alcohol use leads to behaviour that harms others, be it with a car, fists or theft then the criminality is clear. If harm to one's own health is the crime then smokers, drinkers, the obese and others should surely be included in such a system. These illogical and harmful double standards are why we established Harm Reduction Australia. At one level we are seeking to increase the resources allocated to harm reduction and services helping people with drug use problems. At another level we are seeking to expose the discrimination, irrationality and perverseness of the current laws and strategies that often pass without question. Australia had a leading international reputation and role in reducing drug-related harm. Our early adoption of needle and syringe programs gave us one of the lowest levels of HIV among drug users and bears witness to the wisdom of this decision. The acceptance of harm reduction measures by previous governments meant that Australia did not, as many other countries had done, need to establish a national organisation solely dedicated to the promotion of harm reduction, rational and pragmatic drug policies. Unfortunately that situation does not exist today. As governments all but squeeze out any non-government and affected communities involvement in drug strategies, then the more politically expedient our drug policies become, and the further evidence moves from the centre of the process. When a self-funded group with as a professionally diverse base of support as Harm Reduction Australia can be become a reality so quickly then you know the levels of concern and frustration of experts are at breaking point. Before deciding on the message of harm reduction ask yourself if it were your child, friend or loved one using drugs whether your answer would be to criminalise them or increase their access to information and help if needed. Support the policies you want applied for the ones you care about and not just others. Gino Vumbaca is a co-founder of Harm Reduction Australia.