For anyone who’s paid any attention whatsoever to expert opinion on the issue, the Australia 21 report on illicit drug policy is profoundly unsurprising. As Ben Eltham notes, the evidence is as compelling, if not more, than on climate change. Prohibition has failed, and imposes massive human and financial costs on all of us.
But witness the instant reaction of law-and-order conservatives like Victorian Deputy Premier (and Police Minister) Peter Ryan:
“I mean hell will freeze over before I agree to do this,” he said.
“I think it’s more important that we concentrate as much effort and resource as we possibly can in relation to the policing and enforcement of it, although I appreciate there are criticisms about that approach.”
The imperviousness to expert opinion and painstakingly collected evidence should be an embarrassment to political conservatives – or, perhaps more accurately, the contemporary political right, whose connection with ‘conservatism’ is increasingly tenuous. But the fact that most of the political right is implacably opposed to reforming drug policy is the unpalatable reality. Furthermore, some members of the ALP genuinely share this view; others fear the electoral consequences of anything that could be painted by their political opponents as going “soft on drugs”.
Underlying this is the belief, repeatedly if briefly alluded to in the report, that the electoral consequences of a more rational drugs policy are likely to be severe, largely based on the fears of parents that a less punitive approach will encourage their children to partake.
The challenge for the advocates of sensible drugs policy is now political. The evidence is clear – but how do they get to a better policy given the implacable opposition of the likes of Peter Ryan, and the fear factor in sections of the community?
The arguments surrounding harm reduction are not new, and to date they have failed to achieve the goal of shifting policy. The evidence, sadly, isn’t enough. What’s required is a new way to frame the argument in terms that overcomes the fear of the wavering parents, to the point where Labor feels comfortable enough to pursue reform, because we’re clearly not going to get anything resembling sane drug policy from the right.
What that reframing is, I don’t know. My somewhat cynical guess is that anything that involves the well-being of addicts themselves will fall on deaf ears out in the waverer community. But what the winning message actually is, I don’t know.
But I’m pretty confident that the current presentation of the arguments won’t work, however compelling it is to anybody who looks at the issue in any depth.