Drug prohibition is not protecting young Australians; it is killing them.
Last weekend, an apparently tainted batch of illegal drugs caused the needless deaths of three Melbournians and left another 20 hospitalised. In 2015, six ecstasy-related deaths were reported at Australian music festivals, and the latest statistics show that, on average, four Australians die every day from drug overdose. That's 1400 people per year.
The evidence is in: young people are continuing to use illegal drugs in huge numbers despite the massive police effort aimed at enforcing the law, including the use of sniffer dogs at most festivals and setting up roadblocks to search patrons on arrival.
And people continue to use despite the risks of not being sure of what they are taking – an inevitable consequence of the current focus of law makers on prohibition, rather than harm minimisation.
The government's Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey reveals that over a quarter (27.3%) of Australians aged 20–29 used an illicit drug in 2013. Ecstasy is the second most used drug in Australia, with 500,000 people having used it in the last 12 months.
Clearly, prohibiting and criminalising drug use is not stopping young Australians from using drugs; nor is it making it safer.
Until society in general, and law makers in particular, can bring themselves to acknowledge the reality that recreational drug use is prolific – and that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Australians take illicit drugs for enjoyment – then more unnecessary deaths are inevitable.
It is time for governments to acknowledge that their approach to drug policy is a failure and a disaster. Current policies need urgent reform so that the health risks associated with drug use can be properly controlled.
Many deaths could be avoided if the government controlled and regulated the drug market. A more open environment where education and information is available to young people to help them make informed decisions would save lives. Surely some of those deaths could have been avoided if pill testing kits or safe injecting facilities had been available. Surely an open environment where information is available is a safer environment.
Recognising the perverse effects of using the criminal justice system to control what is ultimately a public health problem, British business tycoon Richard Branson has repeatedly called for the decriminalisation of all drugs, saying in 2015: "If I was running a business that was failing, and saw no signs of improvement, I would shut it down and try a new approach."
In Australia, which has one of the highest rates of illegal drug use in the Western world, the optimum health outcome for drug consumers and their families would be achieved through proven harm reduction strategies – policies that aim to mitigate the consequences of drug use rather than eliminate it.
Unlike prohibition-based approaches, harm reduction acknowledges that many people are not able or willing to stop using recreational drugs, and seeks to give them quality information about the drugs they take and provide the resources to help them reduce the potential harms. Examples of harm reduction strategies successfully tried elsewhere include decriminalisation, drug user education, needle exchange programs, pill testing services, heroin assisted therapy, drug courts, safe-injecting rooms and access to naloxone.
Tobacco regulation is an example of good harm reduction policy that has cut smoking rates in half over the past 20 years.
Australia should focus on prevention, treatment and harm reduction measures that address the health and wellbeing of drug users, rather than wasting limited resources on counter-productive law enforcement.
There is a proven alternative to the "War on Drugs" approach; namely a nationally regulated, decriminalised drug market based on Portugal's harm-minimisation model of decriminalising the personal possession of recreational drugs.
The prohibitionist model of attempting to control drug use by criminal sanctions should be replaced with proven health focused laws that properly control drug use through a state-controlled licencing regime, as is currently the case with other potentially harmful drugs like tobacco, alcohol, prescription medication and over the counter drugs.
No organisations or individuals – not governments, police, teachers or even parents – have ever been able to stop young people using drugs. The exasperating truth is that all we can do as a society, and as parents, is to make it as safe as possible when they experiment with drugs.
Drug Policy Australia is a registered Health Promotion Charity with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC).
Greg Chipp is the CEO, Drug Policy Australia.
Also published by The Huffington Post.