Dependence on a War on Drugs

// Written by Tom Marratt, University of South Australia //

This week, Steven Marshall, the Premier of South Australia, has continued with his push to allow passive alert detection (PAD) dogs into South Australian schools. As a result, the problem I want to focus on here is, why is it that when it comes to drugs it seems our politicians, on both sides, have become so dependent on evidence-free policies like this?

A few examples of policy coming before evidence can be found in our “drug driving” laws, the use of PAD dogs, our difficult-by-design medicinal cannabis system, opposition to pill testing, opposition to safe injection facilities. The list could go on, and the impacts of avoiding good policy, even longer.

Back to PAD dogs though, following Marshall’s election announcement of the program Dr Rob Ali an addiction specialist from the University of Adelaide said such a program, if it was to do anything would more than likely increase problems over fixing them and that it does not have a convincing evidence base to it at all.

When it comes to drug dogs outside of schools in Australia what we do however know is that in the case of NSW they are wrong 64-72% of the time. We know that they are costly at around $2000 an hour. We know that they are likely to increase the harms of drug use when they are around through people ingesting their drugs due to panic. And in the event people are found with drugs, it is often only consumers found with small quantities of them for personal use.

Another area of drugs policy fraught with issues is that of our current roadside drug detection system. If one was to be detected “drug driving” the public could well believe such a detection is equal to its counterpart “drunk driving” and therefore a good thing as we have minimised a risk to our road safety. However, such a belief could not be further from the truth because, they cannot detect impairment in a “drug driver”.

“Drug driving” detections are just gauges of whether a person has or has not used a drug being tested for, it is also possible they may have never consumed them at all. Interestingly some illicit drugs are left off entirely e.g. cocaine.

A person could partake for instance in a joint at night, go to work in the morning sober and be disqualified from driving for six months if caught with THC in their system in SA. Even though that THC has had no impact on their driving 12 hours after.

Recently, a magistrate in NSW stated that not once has the prosecution to a “drug driving” case been able to present any scientific evidence that the testing instruments used only detect <12hrs recent use for THC. Arguably, because there is none.

Drugs policy in Australia is however not all evidence free as we have had some wins. One only must look at our nation’s capital to see that evidenced-backed progress can be made. Recently a successful “pill testing” trial was undertaken at the Groovin’ The Moo festival.

This pill testing was done by a consortium named STA-SAFE, made up of doctors, NGOs, and even a student group, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia. Unlike that of our “drug driving” laws, or use of PAD dogs, pill testing is backed by medical professionals and is built on rigorous evidence.

This evidence says that by providing consumers with non-judgemental information they can make rational decisions about what they put in their body therefore reducing the potential risk of overdose or toxicity from unknown substances.

In addition to that, through such initiatives we can put people who use drugs in contact with harm reduction counsellors or peer educators. This is critical because, it is often the first interaction they will have had with any drug related health service. As a result, we can put a community, sometimes harder to engage with, in touch with professionals to have honest and informative conversations about their drug use.

We are constantly told we cannot arrest our way out of this issue so, why do we keep trying it? Australia desperately needs to rid itself of this “get tough” on drugs attitude, we really need to consider getting smart on them instead.

If you are interested in bringing sensible drug policies to the forefront of politics in Australia, please consider checking out the student led group Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Twitter @MarrettTom

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