The war on drugs has failed. The past few decades have shown that when it comes to drug-related harm, you can’t police your way out. Making drugs illegal does not impact addiction or access. Our crystal meth use is one of the highest in developed nations. There are country towns all over Australia with an ‘ice’ problem. Police target cannabis users with unfair drug driving laws that can see someone who smoked a joint a week ago lose their licence. In one year alone in Australia there were over 71k cannabis arrests. In fact, almost 15 per cent of the prison population is in there for drug-related offences. The justice system continues to cause more harm to the community than the drug use.
Meanwhile, legal drugs continue to cause more harm than the illegal ones. Every week more than 100 Australians die from alcohol-related harm and more than 3000 are hospitalised as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.
That’s 5,500 deaths and 157, 000 hospital admissions every year. Alcohol-related harm costs us more than $14 billion per annum. So the argument around prohibition being there for community safety is a furphy. How can we tolerate the excessive harms of alcohol and then criminalise other drug use? It’s clear that all excessive drug use can cause harm. But sending people to jail does not deter drug use.
Vulnerable communities are over-represented in prisons. You can’t use the law as a big stick to traumatise already traumatised people out of their drug use. It clearly doesn’t work. A War on Drugs was never going to work. What we need is a War on Trauma.
Imagine if we addressed drug harm with health policy rather than judicial intervention. A War on Trauma would be an intergenerational, historical and restorative approach to addressing social contributors that underwrite drug and alcohol addictions. A War on Trauma would mean, as a nation, we have to address the harm we have caused First Nations communities through dispossession, colonisation and years of systemic racism, imprisonment and deaths in custody. In a War on Trauma, Treaty would be the first step to securing sovereignty and self-determination.
A War on Trauma would mean social changes. Like access to housing; safe and long-term housing would be assured, and vulnerable people with limited resources would not have to compete with other vulnerable people with limited resources. Housing is a social determinant of health and wellbeing, so securing it would be a first step towards addressing addiction and drug harm in the War on Trauma.
In the War on Trauma we would recognise the impact of family violence on children. Even if they are not the targets of the violence, they are never just bystanders and all protections should extend to them.
In the War on Trauma we would provide ongoing support and intervention to children in schools, in homes, in the community. We’d recognise the only way to stop future harm and trauma is to address and remediate the impacts of harm and trauma now. Break the cycle. Take it seriously.
In the War on Trauma we care for hurt people. We understand the importance of safety, of nutrition, of connection to community, of addressing loneliness, of the power of being in nature.
Being locked in jail for drug-related offences doesn’t change the underlying reasons for why someone has addiction issues. It just amplifies the trauma. And amplified trauma leads to drug harm.
So maybe it’s time to legalise drugs and address the real harm – the trauma caused by an unjust system. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. So what if we stopped hurting people? It’s just an idea, and it’s a radical one, I know. But it’s worth considering moving from drug to hug dependence!