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Greg Barns: Drug wars in Tasmania and Australia a costly disaster

Police raid a house in NSW where 94 cannabis plants were found.

EVER watched Narcos? The Netflix series, now in its third series, chronicles the arrogant US imperial anti-drugs machine and its futile attempts in the 1990s to stop the production and export of cocaine from Colombia into the US. Narcos tells us something we already know — that the war on drugs is a monumental failure and that every time a drug cartel is taken down, another one sweeps in to the space created and exploits a seriously profitable market opportunity. Cocaine is a drug of choice for millions, including Americans, and it will always be the case. What happens in Narcos is a manifestation of what Tasmania’s Chief Justice Alan Blow said recently (Sunday Tasmanian, September 10). Chief Justice Blow told an audience of lawyers that when it comes to drugs “we send a lot of traffickers to prison, in my view, with no discernible impact on Tasmania’s drug problem, although there seems to be an expectation that that will happen”. Chief Justice Blow’s comments were absolutely, 100 per cent correct. And in last Friday’s Mercury his unerringly accurate observation was borne out. Mercury reporter Alex Luttrell revealed that Tasmania is now the second highest jurisdiction in Australia when it comes to illicit drug use. Drug use climbed 5 per cent between 2011 and 2016. Cannabis was the preferred drug for most Tasmanians. And according to the report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which published the numbers, 33 per cent of Tasmanian young people had recently used drugs. That is one in every three young Tasmanians. So there you have it. As this columnist knows, every time Tasmania Police hold one of their silly media conferences and beat their chests about how they have pulled in a “record drug haul”, all that happens is another player sees an opportunity to meet demand and build a business. And when judges and magistrates give lectures about how terrible drugs are and how they must send a message to the community that drug trafficking will not be tolerated and so they must jail individuals involved, they know that Chief Justice Blow’s view about the futility of their efforts is correct.

Isn’t it extraordinary that as a community we allow our politicians, police, lawyers and courts to waste millions of dollars every year on drug crimes. Money that is having absolutely zero impact on the use of drugs in the community and which in fact, merely makes it an attractive business to be in given the super profits that result from the high-risk nature of the venture. Not only is the money spent on the war on drugs in Tasmania a scandalous misuse of scarce resources but many people just do not take the law seriously. When it comes to cannabis, users and sellers rightly observe that across the world this very useful substance is being legalised. In Canada, the US, countries in Latin America and Europe, cannabis is being legalised or decriminalised. Even if it was not, cannabis is seen by many as being a legitimate relaxant, pain relief agent and frankly, simply a pleasurable experience. The appalling waste of public resources on failed drugs policy should be as topical an issue as the social and economic wreckage of pokies in Tasmania. The Legislative Council — these days a very effective check on a government that ignores sound and rational policy for populism too often — should establish an inquiry to look at drugs policy. When the Chief Justice says publicly what every other judicial officer, many police and most sensible people think, then it is time to deal with the issue. And let us not forget the excellent report launched last month by recently retired Chief Magistrate Michael Hill, the foremost drug addiction doctor in Australia Alex Wodak, and leading human rights lawyer Ben Bartl which called for a rethink of drugs policy. The terms of reference ought to encompass looking at legalisation and decriminalisation options. How Tasmania can actually turn cannabis into an economic growth story needs to be part of the inquiry’s work. Remember this. Many of the drugs currently illegal were once lawful. Heroin and cocaine spring to mind. It was only a desperate US President Richard Nixon in 1971 who declared a war on drugs. He did this because the shot-up, mentally scarred US soldiers in Vietnam were naturally resorting to hallucinogens to numb the pain inflicted on them by the Pentagon war machine. Narcos should be compulsory viewing for any fool who thinks prohibition works. Twenty years after the events it depicts took place and you can still get great bucket loads of cocaine from Colombia. And the US demand for the white powder has not diminished one iota. Wow, prohibition has really worked, hasn’t it. Barrister Greg Barns is a Hobart-based human rights lawyer. He was previously an adviser to state and federal Liberal governments. Originally published here:

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