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Padraic P. McGuinness, The Australian, October 4, 1989, p. 2.

Heroin will be legalised eventually. The only real problem is how long it will take, and how much pain our society will inflict on itself before accepting the inevitable.

There is mounting evidence that the existing policy of total illegality of heroin and similar hard drugs is not only not working, but is encouraging the growth of a criminal milieu. This is doing the addicts, the users and the community generally far more harm than the drug itself. Much of the resistance to the suggestion of legalisation comes from a lack of understanding about the drugs and how they are now used and distributed.

A recent paper by Robert Marks [no relation] of the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of NSW, which follows up earlier writings on the same subject, sheds considerable new light on the heroin controversy. Not that Marks is in disagreement with other serious authorities on the matter; the report by the federal parliamentary committee on the National Crime Authority, dealing with drugs, crime and society (the Cleeland report) reaches similar conclusions.

The Marks paper, however, makes a significant addition to the subject. As a result of media publicity for an earlier paper on the heroin problem, he was contacted by a prisoner in a Victorian jail who provided him with some fascinating information. This was the result of a survey of the Victorian distribution network conducted by five large heroin dealers in April 1981.

This piece of market research yielded a lot of information about the manner in which heroin is reticulated in the market, starting from an important piece of basic information: the fact that the dealers who controlled the Victorian heroin trade knew exactly how much heroin of a specified purity was reaching the Victorian market every week.

The most important revelation of this survey, which is supported by other evidence, is that there is a large casual user market for heroin. The ratio of casual to regular users is about 8:1. As Marks writes:

These occasional users are in general people who can control their use of the drug, perhaps going on an occasional binge, but no more becoming an “addict” than the social drinker becomes an alcoholic.

The public image of the heroin user — recently reinforced by the lurid anti-AIDS advertisements — is of the derelict junkie shooting up in the gutter.

The occasional users, since they have not in general come to the attention of the police or the medical services, do not conform to the picture of the “typical” heroin user, and indeed have, until recently, been overlooked by the professional commentators.

But since they control their heroin use, they impose no direct cost on the taxpayers, unlike the “full-time addicts” or narcovores. In this case, what reason is there to be alarmed at their numbers or drug use per se? Concern, if any, might be justified if their casual use and needle-sharing poses a public health risk.

This is extremely important. First, the evidence is that high quality heroin, unadulterated by harmful substances added for stretching substances by dealers, is not harmful. It is in fact less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.

Second, it is not necessarily addictive; a large number of users can in fact take it or leave it alone. Third, even addicts who are able to escape the dangers of the criminalisation of heroin eventually taper off and give up on the drug. This will come as a shock to those who have vivid images of the harm wrought by the drug — but most of this comes from the fact that it is illegal, not that it is powerful.

The impossibility of suppressing the heroin trade is demonstrated by the huge profits that can be earned.

The real price of heroin has been falling at the points of supply; as of 1988, a recent NSW study says, the price in Hong Kong of 80 to 90 per cent pure heroin is between $12,000 and $15,000 a kilo, while the selling price to wholesalers in Australia is between $200,000 and $250,000 a kilo. With profits like this, importation of heroin is simply unstoppable. Much of the profits are, of course, diverted to the bribery and corruption of various figures in the community whose activities are related to the control of the drug trade.

Once it is in Australia, the chain of distribution involves the stuff being broken up into smaller quantities, and diluted. The Melbourne survey showed it moving down a chain of purity from wholesalers through dealers to small user-dealers to final users at approximately 8 per cent purity. Thus, the original kilo at 80 per cent purity would end up being sold, potentially, as 50,000 200mg doses (called caps or foils). The falling real price of heroin has meant that the quality at street level has been rising.

While the money involved in Australia is enormous, the cost of importing is, from a balance of payments point of view, not great — the largest estimate is of a total import bill for 440kg a year of about $6.6 million.

The widespread incidence of casual heroin use and the huge profits involved (though not at the user-dealer level — such people are interested mainly in selling enough to support their own habits) make it clear that the policy of total prohibition is not working. It in fact breeds criminality, both at the top and by way of money-getting activities (theft, mugging, prostitution) by addicts. It also, because of the high end price, means that people who would otherwise smoke or sniff heroin inject it, thus leading into the AIDS problem.

What would happen if heroin were legalised and reasonably easily available? The mounting evidence is that there would be a greater consumption by addicts, though, because of greater certainty of dose and purity, probably less casualties. But not necessarily more addicts.

There might well be, however, greater casual use. To repeat, there is no convincing evidence that this would be harmful given the provisos about purity and certainty.

Nobody in their right minds would suggest that anyone should experiment with heroin, even once — but even an increased rate of addiction might not be as socially harmful as the present situation.

As Marks says, the best solution to the problem would probably be to make the stuff legally available on a controlled (prescription) basis at relatively low prices, to undercut the black market — without promotion or advertising. If, as the evidence suggests, many people can handle it without visible ill-effect, then their use is their own problem and no one else’s.

There would, undoubtedly, be victims and casualties, as with alcohol. But as with that substance, this is a risk and a cost we have to bare for the sake of effective regulation rather than crime-breeding prohibition. We are not winning the war against heroin and similar drugs as it is.

If we cannot keep such drugs out of the highest security jails, how on earth do we think they can be kept out of the country as a whole? It is time to accept that, frightening and powerful as they are, these drugs are not as sinister as the criminal milieu that has been created by their illegal trade would suggest.

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