Dear Minister,

Given the current critical state of the Australian economy, you are looking to cut spending which has minimal evidence of benefit and even some evidence of harm. Rather than slogging pensioners and carers – which is certain to give you political pain – why don’t you consider targeting spending on drug law enforcement?

The 1996-97 Federal Budget included a $A22.2 million (6.9 %) funding cut for the Australian Federal Police while the 1997-98 Budget included a further 4 % funding cut for the Australian Federal Police and the National Crime Authority. Whether these cuts affected drug law enforcement is not known but they caused no political pain to the Howard government. However, these cuts were subsequently restored (and then some).

Expect critics of any cuts to drug law enforcement to claim that the “Tough on Drugs” policy of the previous government was entirely responsible for our heroin shortage (which started in 2000/01). They will quote a favourable study (funded of course by drug law enforcement). However it is now clear, contrary to that report, that Australia was not the only country receiving heroin predominately from Burma to develop a heroin shortage. That makes it very hard to sustain the argument that drug law enforcement caused the heroin shortage. A confidential 2003 report to the Blair Cabinet in the UK (leaked in 2005) also rejected the argument that Australia’s heroin shortage was caused by better funded and more effective drug law enforcement.

The theory of market balance suggests that sooner or later markets of scarcity get supplied by markets of glut. That appears to be starting to happen in the Australian heroin market. Heroin production in Burma declined 90% from 1996 while Afghanistan now provides 93% of world heroin with production increasing 49% in 2006 and a further 34% in 2007. For the first time, heroin from Afghanistan has recently started to appear in Australia. Expect your critics to try and rub your nose in that.

Even though the return on investing in expensive efforts to find illicit drug needles in haystacks is miserable and despite the fact that we get a handsome return from investing in drug treatment and support, there are few votes in backing improved drug treatment.

Lindsay, if you think you can cope with the politics of this, then refer drug law enforcement to the Expenditure Review Committee and tell them to just keep their nerve. But make sure you put some of the savings into drug treatment and social support for injecting drug users. No one wants an HIV epidemic. That would also cost us heaps down the track.

Peter Fray

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