Can electoral politics fix our broken drug policy?

With burgeoning support for ending the war on drugs, political parties may begin to liberalise on the issue of drug use.

Drug use is a fairly routine activity for many young people. It’s a casual thought — the stuff of a night out, or a gig, or an overdue assignment. The stigma attached to illicit drugs has faded substantially, at least for the kinds of drug use most commonly engaged in by middle and upper class university students. Drugs are a ubiquitous cultural reference, an easy joke. Those of us who do not use drugs are increasingly likely to approach them with a sense of acceptance. In this context, it feels pretty incongruous that the wider socio-political approach to drugs remains hostile, punitive and counterproductive. 

Young people are not unfamiliar with the sense that national politics is out of step with our interests. The disillusionment with mainstream climate policy is a clear example of where young people’s attitude for change clearly outpaces our political elders. Yet the dissonance does raise the question: what would it take to make progressive drug policy an election issue?

To answer this, we need to take a look at the parties’ drug policy at present.

The Liberal Party’s record on drug policy is, reliably, cooked. Their policy platform’s only mention of drugs is in the context of having “sent drug offenders packing” by refusing their visas. Their history on the issue is intensely punitive, having several times tried to mandate random drug testing for welfare recipients. Their rhetoric on the issue is reliably condemnatory, emotive, and centres law enforcement as the natural solution to drug issues.

The Labor Party’s national platform treats the issue better, framing it as a health issue and supporting “harm minimisation principles” and better funding for health services. At a state level, Labor governments have been key (although inconsistent) supporters of medically supervised injection rooms, despite conservative opposition. In the ACT, the Labor Party proposed the Territory’s cannabis decriminalisation legislation. Nonetheless, it is clearly not a focus of the party, nor do they support more radical measures that would truly end the war on drugs and provide agency to users.

The Greens have a distinctly more drug-friendly approach: their platform openly supports decriminalisation and harm minimisation, and Greens politicians have been vocal public supporters of ending drug policing.

David Shoebridge, former NSW Greens MP and current Senate candidate, founded Sniff Off in 2011 to oppose the use of drug dogs by police. He expressed frustration with the major parties’ approach to drug use, telling Honi, “Compassion and common sense are lacking in the major parties’ responses to drug use. Criminalising drug use harms drug users and empowers organised crime, everybody knows this, but the Coalition and Labor are addicted to law and order politics.”

If the conventional responses to drug issues are broken, can we expect electoral politics to fix them?

Public attitudes towards drug use are clearly shifting fast. Support for the legalisation of cannabis has doubled in Australia since 2013. Decriminalisation is even supported by the Uniting Church, although it’s admittedly a very progressive religious institution.

Shoebridge suggested that demographic changes will likely feed into change on drug policy, arguing “as the Tik-Tok and Instagram generation starts voting and taking political power from 2GB listeners the tide will turn even more sharply.”

Cursory consultation with my peers (read: Instagram mutuals) suggested there is indeed an appetite for change. Several people told me that drug policy was a main concern in assessing parties’ policy platforms, with key demands being pill testing and decriminalisation. 

One student told me “It’s more the vibe the candidate gives on drug policy that matters to me. I’m more inclined to vote for a party that has laws involving rehabilitative politics for drug use, but I feel like that’s mostly because a party that has that kind of drug policy will have other economic/social policies that I agree with.”

Funnily enough, the Young Liberals I spoke to (anonymous for obvious reasons) told me they disagreed with their party on drug issues. 

But is this popular support sufficient to change parties’ tracks on drug policy?

One anonymous (for obvious reasons) source suggested to me that, despite the Liberals lagging behind on the issue, there has been some gradual progress. Notably, Parliamentary Committee 6 in the NSW Legislative Council has referred a Bill exempting THC from roadside drug testing, which “will very likely pass [the Legislative Council] as long as the ALP supports it.” 

The same source suggested that MPs privately expressed to them that “should a cannabis decrim bill get presented, … it could have the potential [of] passing on a conscience vote.”

Perhaps then, as public opinion evolves, the reforms will pick up pace.

One clear barrier to change is that — faced with a host of policy issues ranging from climate 

change to cost of living — voters’ preferences on drug issues fall by the wayside. It’s ultimately a relatively marginal issue. Additionally, with the bulk of direct drug policy occuring at a state level, although a bold national platform can impact the direction of drug policy, reforms are unlikely to be simple and nationwide. 

Shoebridge was clear that “even with a surge in support for politicians who understand the evidence for drug law reform, these policies will only be won with a powerful on the ground campaign.”

On the ground campaigns are undoubtedly vital. The fundamental flaw of the drug war is that it wilfully ignores the actual realities of drug use — it refuses to admit that drugs are fun, that people have strategies to minimise harm, and that there are structural issues that create drug abuse. These are all lessons that simply including drug users in policy processes can provide; ultimately, top-down policy from political parties will never be sufficient without providing actual drug users with the right to self-determination.