‘The war on drugs is a war on us’
Jack Murphyn8607192'The drugs don't help they just make it worse'
external image waronus.jpg

The Artefact:

This picture is illustrated by an unknown author and portrays the criminalization and war on drugs having an adverse effect on the people, causing more detriment than good. The message given by this artwork is that the war on drugs should be re-evaluated and a more effective, contemporary approach should be taken in relation to illicit drug use in Australia and around the world. The image challenges the current justice system and the so called ‘war on drugs’ and blatantly shows the negative relation these systems have on us.

The Public Health Issue:
The artefact represents the public health issue of harm minimisation versus the criminal justice system or abstinence. In other words the issue revolves around drug addicts being treated as criminals rather than patients. Rather than receiving physical and psychological help to treat their drug dependencies and overcome their addictions, drug addicts are put in prisons, in an environment which can only worsen their psychological and physical state while making no effort to break their habits and drug dependencies which will likely continue once they are released, if not during their prison sentence. The criminalisation of drug use also means drug users are forced to take the drugs in uncontrolled environments which lead to other public health issues such as blood borne viruses spread through syringes and other diseases spread through the sharing of paraphernalia.

Literature Review:
Over the last decade the production and demand for illicit drugs has been increasing significantly in Australia and around the world despite the anti-drug campaigns and the war on drugs. “Based on responses to the 2004 NDSHS, 38% of Australians aged 14 years and over had used any illicit drug at least once in their lifetime, and 15% had used any illicit drug at least once in the last 12 months.” (AIHW, 2007) Marijuana was the most used drug in Australia by far with over 1/3 having used the drug in their lifetime, while methamphetamines, MDMA, Cocaine and Heroin being the next most used drug.

Table 1 shows the Rates of illicit drugs used in Australia

(Australian Institute of Criminology, 2010)

According to nearly all researchers and theorists, criminalising drug users has shown little positive effect on the individual. Causing a massive overload in prison systems due to petty drug crime being prosecuted and costing the government trillions of dollars all up, and at what benefit to the community? Ensuring the safety of the citizens by locking up ‘dangerous criminals’ who associate with illicit drugs without treating them or actually addressing the core issue; the addiction. The amount spend annually in the U.S. on the war on drugs is over 51,000,000,000, with around 1.55 million non-violent drug charges (Drug Policy Organisation, 2013). While in Australia the annual expenditure is about 4.7 billion due to a less abstinence approach and drug policy framework based around harm minimisation. Table 2 and 3 show the significant increase of incarcerations over the last decade due to drug related charges, take into note that a large portion of these incarcerations are for possession alone.


Table 4 (Matt Groff,2011)

Table 4 sums up the argument perfectly, showing that over the last 40 years, the focus on abstinence policies and criminalizing drug users and addicts has shown no significant effect on the drug addiction rates in the U.S despite the 1.5 trillion dollar expenditure. With facts like these it is hard to wonder why the ‘war on drugs’ is still enforced while the evidence states that it is making no significant difference at all, while further digging the economy into its own grave.

Harm minimising approaches to illicit drug use offer a more contemporary approach to the issue and focus on treatment and prevention rather than punishment. Harm minimisation based policy takes a more public health approach to drug use and relies on public health strategies which aim to reduce harm to individuals and the community. Examples of harm minimising programs include: needle syringe programs, drug courts, pharmacotherapy prescribing programs such as methadone, supervised injecting services and even prescribed heroin. Harm minimising policies have proved to be far more effective in treating addiction of illicit drugs than criminal justice systems and this is easily explained. The way the criminal justice system works the individual is punished for an addiction which is essentially a health issue, during the prison sentence the individual is likely to continue using the drug in one way or another and are almost certain to continue the drug use when released, this is because the disease is not treated and no medical support is acquired. The same thing goes for drug production, when the Drug Enforcement Agency brings down a key drug supplier this just opens up the chance for another drug dealer to step up and take his/her position; it is a vicious cycle and is virtually impossible to stop the black-market drug trade as there will always be someone to step in when someone is taken down. By implementing measures such as needle dispensaries, drug courts and even legalisation of certain drugs in the future the health associated risks of taking illicit drugs is going to be minimised thus rates of disease spread and improper use will be minimised also. Harm minimisation takes into account that people are always going to use illicit drugs, and if we ignore this massive public health issues are going to occur. So therefore it is important to work around what we have and make it as safe as possible for the population of illicit drug users.
Table 5
Source:(StoneTreeAus, 2011)

Table 5 refers to the 3 core pillars of harm minimisation policy; supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction. Supply reduction aims to reduce the production and distribution of illicit drugs, demand reduction means reducing the demand for and the uptake of damaging drug use and harm reduction reduces this drug related harm in the community. “The overall aim of this approach is to improve the health, social and economic outcomes for both the community and the individual” (Queensland Parliamentary library, 2002)

The methodologies used by most researchers and the government are quantitative, not qualitative and therefore little attention to detail is explored in relation to the drug users motives or reasoning for taking the drugs. Another limitation is the relationship between drug use and other crimes such as violent offences, for example a number of prisoners incarcerated for crimes such as break and enter and assault often have marijuana in their system and then this drug is seen as some sort of underlying motive when in fact all drugs stay in the body for a certain time and for marijuana it stays in the system for a long time. Therefore it is likely the offender was not under the influence of marijuana for when committing a crime but it has stayed in the system from a previous use of the drug. This is a common misconception in relation to drugs and crime.

Cultural and Social Analysis:
Society and culture are important to consider in all phases of drug policy, and the current policies in Australia mainly focus on punishment through the criminal justice system. The country does follow a number of harm minimisation frameworks such as safe homes, needle dispensaries and drug courts, however these facilities are scarce and hard to access for most drug addicts. Also the fact that drug use is frowned upon by society makes it even harder for these individuals to have the courage to access these facilities. It is important to consider the wider society and culture when trying to understand the core of the issue which is affected by a number of determinants such as upbringing, socio economic status and demography. “Social and economic factors shape risk behaviour and the health of drug users. They affect health indirectly by shaping individual drug-use behaviour; they affect health directly by affecting the availability of resources, access to social welfare systems, marginalization, and compliance with medication.” (NCBI, 2002) Therefore it is essential to educate societies on the risks of drug abuse from a young age to address the issue at its core rather than leaving it for an addict to end up in the criminal justice system receiving no medical attention to combat their addiction.

Therefore cultural forces and social trends directly influencing ones chance of becoming dependant on an illicit drug include predisposition to low socioeconomic status and troubled upbringings. The nature of drug addiction has changed over years and while it is more likely for a disadvantaged population to abuse drugs it is possible for anyone to become a dependant drug user in today’s society. This is evident in a number of celebrities today who are exposed to highly addictive illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin; this shows how easy it is to become attached to a substance and that it can happen to anyone.

The social and cultural groups in Australia most affected by drug abuse and the criminal justice system in general are those who are on the low end of the socioeconomic scale who have had troublesome upbringings and tough lives. The indigenous population are also at an elevated risk of having access to illicit drugs and becoming addicted to these substances. The Australian Bauera of Statistics, 2012 shows that one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over (20%) reported having recently used an illicit substance (i.e. in the 12 months prior to interview) and 39% reported having tried at least one illicit substance in their lifetime.
Awareness and education of this issue is important so that the likelihood of a person to try an illicit drug in the first place will be influenced by their knowledge of the risks associated with drug use and addiction. Awareness is also important so that current drug addicts are aware of the harm minimisation programs in Australia and are able to easily access these programs, thus lowering the chances of improper use and spread of diseases and blood borne viruses.

Therefore public health experts play a massive role in educating the public on this issue and should start by focusing on educating the population on the health associated risks of drug abuse and addiction and also promoting the harm minimisation programs which are available for current drug users. It is clear that not all people are affected equally by drug abuse and this makes it important to target the groups who are at the most risk for example the indigenous Australian communities and the lower socioeconomic population including the homeless.

Analysis of the Artefact:
‘The war on drugs is a war on us’ is a powerful artefact which opens the eyes of everyday people and exploits them to the absolute contrary results which are being revealed from the so called ‘war on drugs’. It highlights the fact that the criminal justice system and punishment has shown no sign of lowering the rates of addiction nor have any interest in helping individuals with their drug problems. Throughout this piece of assessment it has occurred to me that the war on drugs is a money making tool, it essentially puts money into the hands of the police department, the drug suppliers, and banks through money laundry. And while the statistics from over 40 years have shown that the war on drugs has shown no significant positive change and wasted trillions of dollars the war continues. The war on drugs is an unwinnable war, forcing the expansion of the already unsustainable prison industry and costing governments trillions of dollars. It is time for change, a system which helps drug abuse victims to break their habits rather than further punishing them when they are already in an unstable state. The rise of harm minimisation policy will be the key to the future of drug addiction and the war on drugs needs to stop. I will leave you with this cartoon illustrated by Tim Kelly, which I believe sums up my view of the so called ‘War on Drugs’.


Author(Tim Kelly)




AIHW. (2011). Statistics on drug use in Australia 2006. Retrieved from http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=6442467962

Australian Institute of Criminology. (2012). Measuring drug use patterns in Queensland through wastewater analysis. Retrieved from http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/441-460/tandi442.html

Drugpolicy.org. (2013). Drug War Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/drug-war-statistics

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2006). Drugs and Crime Facts. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/dcf/enforce.cfm

The Atlantic Wire. (2012). A Chart That Says the War on Drugs isn’t Working. Retrieved from http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/10/chart-says-war-drugs-isnt-working/57913/

Queensland Parliamentary Library. (2002). Minimising the Harm of Illicit Drug Use: Drug Policies in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/explore/ResearchPublications/ResearchBriefs/2002/2002006.pdf

NCIB. (2002). Social Determinants and the Health of Drug Users: Socioeconomic Status, Homelessness, and Incarceration. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1913691/pdf/pubhealthrep00207-0140.pdf

Australian Beuau of Statistics. (2012). Adult Health: Illicit Substance Use. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/lookup/4704.0Chapter757Oct+2010