Drugs and Decriminalisation

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD 

1968 America

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This quote was spoken by John Ehrlichman, chief domestic policy advisor to former United States President, Richard Nixon. The complete and horrific blatancy of the confession reveals a truth that is nothing short of harrowing.

This quote exposes the sinister origins of the United States’ initiative, coined by Nixon as ‘the war on drugs,’ which spread across the world in a global campaign that demanded blanket prohibition and vicious law enforcement.

This war on drugs established the conventional and prevailing attitudes towards drug use that continue worldwide to this day. It was used as a system of racial control, with policies intentionally designed as a mechanism to police, disenfranchise, and displace people of colour in the United States.

The worldwide criminalisation of drugs remains, to this day, a powerful structural reinforcement and enabler of racial disadvantage.

2023 Australia

The effects of these origins absolutely resound through drug-related law enforcement in Australia.

There exists a tremendous racial disparity in treatment at every stage of the Australian criminal justice system, from on-the-ground policing to judge’s decisions in court. People of colour, particularly First Nations peoples, are more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and also more likely to be arrested and convicted for the same offence.

Released data shows that Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented in the number of strip searches conducted by NSW Police – within a two-year period, 12% of all strip searches were conducted on Indigenous people, despite constituting only 2.4% of the state’s population. This forms the first step of overrepresentation in the criminal system for drug related offences – greater levels of strip searching disproportionately inflates numbers of arrests. From here, these biases continue throughout each aspect of the enforcement system.

In a positive preliminary step away from the entrenched ideology of the war on drugs, each of the Australian states and territories have gradually adopted a partial decriminalisation surrounding personal drug possession and use. This grants police the power to divert people away from the criminal justice system for minor non-violent offences. In place of receiving conviction through court processes, people who are diverted may instead receive a fine or willingly participate in drug education and counselling.

Decriminalisation: Two forms

However, not all decriminalisation is created equal. Throughout Australia, the primary form of decriminalisation used leaves discretionary diversion in the hands of police. Possession and personal use remain a criminal offence, and police are allowed to use their discretion on enforcement, providing opportunities for diversion as they deem ‘situationally appropriate.’

This manifests in significant race-based disparity regarding diversion, with Indigenous people found in possession pursued through courts at far greater proportions than non-Indigenous people found in possession. Data released from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research shows that 82.55% of all Indigenous people found with a non-indictable quantity of cannabis were pursued through the courts, compared with only 52.29% for the non-Indigenous population.

Karly Warner, Chief Executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service, explains that the data illustrates how Indigenous people are treated differently at “every stage” of the justice system, with the systemic racism “forcing, absolutely forcing, Aboriginal kids, young people and adults into contact with a criminal justice system they will potentially never get out of again.”

Criminalisation: effectiveness and effects

Criminalisation and discretionary decriminalisation of drug use creates cyclic generational disadvantage, making it extremely difficult to break free of the criminal system. Once convicted, it becomes immensely more challenging to secure housing or employment, driving families into poverty and encouraging further criminal offence and drug use.

In fact, drug addiction and dependence is most often driven by social disadvantage, mental health issues and lasting effects of childhood trauma – with criminalisation perpetuating this cycle, creating the same harm it purportedly seeks to prevent.

Cycling drug users through the criminal justice system exacerbates inequality while doing nothing to reduce harm.

In light of this, not only does the criminalisation of drugs perpetuate generational and racial disadvantage, it also does not work. The war on drugs has been an outright failure regarding the original publicised aim of protecting people from harm through the creation of a drug free world.

In order to end the cycles of drug-related harm and social disadvantage, full decriminalisation must be legislated that diverts all people found in possession away from the criminal justice system – and removes the power of police discretion in enacting this.

Drug addiction and drug-related harm is a public health issue. Law enforcement should be used to protect rather than target people who use drugs, addressing the underlying causes of drug use and providing measures for treatment and harm reduction.

The war on drugs has led to mass incarceration, arbitrary arrests, and devastating police brutality, the burden of which has fallen disproportionately on people of colour worldwide. Australian drug laws must change in order to begin deconstructing structural and systemic racism and break free from the cycles of generational social disadvantage.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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