Another day, another brazen shooting in Cocaine City. Sounds like the start of a juicy crime noir novel. But this is not fiction, this is Sydney right now – last week and the previous few months. Eleven dead that we know of. In response, a decades-old government approach – the war on drugs – continues to fail.
Our communities are vulnerable, our streets unsafe, because this policy empowers drug gangs rather than stopping them. Surely it’s beyond time to consider new approaches, including one that can, and will, drive organised drug gangs out of business overnight: legalisation.
Mounting evidence suggests the current war on drugs isn’t working. Credit: NSW Police
Two police insider comments last week reveal why. Senior police admitted that their operations could be partly to blame for recent gang-related violence, telling the media that drug busts that do not result in arrests can lead to criminals seeking retribution. Then, an unnamed police source told this newspaper late last week: “These gangsters will be on Centrelink in six months if you legalised drugs”.
In stark contrast, senior police bureaucrats, media and politicians have instead all been saying the same thing: that Sydney has a drug problem and getting tougher is the answer, despite the evidence it doesn’t work.
The police minister called for “hundreds and hundreds” more police officers even though top cops said they weren’t needed, while announcing a hastily pulled-together Taskforce Magnus that didn’t really do anything new other than combining eight existing strike forces. Utopia, eat your heart out.
Despite mounting evidence of its abject failure, the pointless war on drugs cycle continues. Nothing from the NSW government, from police bureaucrats or from conservative media is any different from what’s been said or attempted in recent decades.
Meanwhile, the same drug narratives keep being peddled. Cocaine is a deadly, dangerous drug that must be kept off our streets, along with cannabis, ketamine, MDMA, magic mushrooms and others.
Each year, many more people die from overdoses from legal drugs like alcohol, prescription opioids and antidepressants than they do from cocaine. In 2021, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre reported the rate of drug overdose deaths involving opioids in Australia doubled between 2002 and 2019, with 1008 overdose deaths reported that year alone.
That same year, 183 died unintentionally from consuming alcohol, while 77 died from cocaine. Some cocaine deaths were a result of deadly substances it was cut with, like Lidocaine, which can stop your heart beating if taken in large doses.
Alcohol kills 3 million people worldwide, according to the WHO. In 2021, there were 1559 alcohol-related injury deaths and 30,000 hospitalisations in Australia, the most reported in 10 years.
Time to wage war on alcohol and make it illegal? We tried that, and it failed. So we regulate alcohol, ensuring that bottles are clearly labelled, with health warnings and alcohol content on every bottle. We advise pregnant women not to consume it. We take Responsible Service of Alcohol seriously. And we boost the federal budget by about $8 billion in tax each year.
Why are some drugs legal and others not? It’s certainly not because of the harm they cause. Coca has been used by Indigenous groups for thousands of years. It’s used as medicine to alleviate pain, combat altitude sickness and improve concentration, and to feel good. Of course, too much cocaine can get you into trouble, and even cause death. Just like alcohol and Panadol.
Latest estimates have Australians consuming about 5.6 tonnes of cocaine every year, or 5.6 million baggies. The amount we’re consuming has doubled in a decade. Anyone who says we just need to keep telling people not to take drugs has rocks in their heads.
The only people benefiting from this stupid and dangerous mentality are criminals – and the police union and bureaucrats who demand more resources they don’t need. They already have enough to deal with the problem.
Isn’t it time to ask ourselves what harm it would do if we created a strictly regulated cocaine market? We’d say goodbye to the black market and police resources could be deployed elsewhere to focus on other very pressing problems like family violence.
The thrill of buying something on the black market would also disappear (yes, really), there’d be no unknown substances mixed in and there’d be mandatory health warnings.
Then, say the government taxed it at 50 per cent (tobacco is taxed at 65 per cent), we could pay nurses more and fund more health services including alcohol and other drug treatment centres, particularly in the regions where they’re sorely needed.
We urgently need a new approach, starting with acknowledging that the war on drugs has failed. Then all options must be on the table, including giving ganglords what they fear most: Centrelink.
Cate Faehrmann is a Greens MP and drug law reform and harm reduction spokesperson.