12 Mar 2020
Australia, you have a drug problem
By John Coyne
If not for Coronavirus and its broader economic impacts, this week the federal government might have had to acknowledge that illicit drug consumption in Australia was growing at an alarming rate. Further, its efforts to address the problem have had almost no impact over the last three years.
On Tuesday, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program released its ninth report, which provided some rather grim evidence-based statistics on national drug use patterns.
Over the last three years the total weight of MDMA and Cocaine consumed in Australia has risen by 77.9 and 51.7 per cent respectively.
Despite various governments’ best efforts, which include a National Ice Action Strategy, the total weight of methyl-amphetamine consumed in Australia has increased by 37 per cent over the same period.
Put another way, the estimated street value of drugs consumed in Australia has risen from $8.6 to $11.3 billion a year.
Of course, the growth is not consistent across all states all the time. As is to be expected, there are fluctuations in drug use, no doubt attributable at times to availability. However, the trend is clear: ‘the majority of consumption records occurred in 2019, accounting for 50 per cent of all record highs’.
The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program is a world’s best practice for measuring and interpreting drug use within a population. It was developed and funded to establish an evidence-based quantitative understanding of our national illicit drug use patterns.
Now that we have nine reports, covering the last three years, it is time for policymakers to acknowledge that we are at a critical point.
There is evidence that some large illicit drug seizures have had some short-term impacts on street level supply: the usage data shows as much.
However, to be very clear, record seizures by the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force and their state and territory police partners, have failed to disrupt the supply of illicit drugs to such an extent as to prevent long-term increases in drug consumption.
Unless you subscribe to the rather glib philosophy that ‘it could always be worse’, it is clear that something must change.
Without doubt, demand reduction and harm minimisation programs have had impacts on the lives of many at risk Australians. Unfortunately, these impacts are not translating into broad changes in illicit drug consumption patterns.
What is not clear is whether we need to better fund current efforts, find new approaches, or both. In the meantime, Australians continue to consume more illicit drugs.
I am not yet advocating an end to Australia’s drug supply and demand reduction efforts. A broad demand for legalisation, or even decriminalisation, of all currently illicit drugs would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You only need to look to the illicit tobacco market to see how this could turn out. New criminal markets can emerge from over-taxation of legal and controlled commodities.
Going forward, the government needs to make a clear statement on the significance of the challenge, and in doing so, make a commitment to pursuing new thinking.
As a starting point, it should establish a new joint parliamentary committee to critically explore our current national illicit drug strategy, with a focus on identifying gaps between demand and supply reduction and harm minimisation policy commitments, actions and impact. This work needs to focus on shaping Australia’s long-term illicit drug strategy.
Without a little honesty, and openness to new ideas, Australia’s illicit drug problem is on track to progressively worsen