Drug policy is often described as hard or soft. These terms are really misnomers. Being tough on drugs is something that is done by weak politicians. There is no more lazy response to a social problem than jacking up prison sentences. Not only is it lazy it is fiscally irresponsible.

Last July, the Western Australian government announced new laws that would mean a person caught with any more than 10 grams of cannabis would risk two years in jail. Of course the measures, which came into effect in August last year, were reported in terms of toughness. AAP reported on the “tough new penalties”. The Western Australian Police Minister himself, Rob Johnson, said the move was designed to roll back the “relaxed, soft drug laws” introduced by the previous government. “What it will mean is that those people caught with cannabis will not simply get a slap on the wrist,” he told the media.

And yet evidence shows that it was under those “softer” drug laws that the rate of marijuana use in Western Australia actually decreased. Usage fell from 13.7% in 2004 to 10.8% in 2007, according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. What was happening in Western Australian drug policy at the time? In 2004 premier Geoff Gallop decriminalised the possession of small quantities of pot.

It is astounding that policies that criminalise drug users still get described in bold, thrusting terms when they are so limp in terms of effectiveness. If anything the terms should be reversed. Sadly, we have come to the point where the tough thing for politicians to do is to make drug policy based on sound evidence.

So I propose we stop letting politicians getting away with this abuse of language. All politicians deserve tough questioning on their drug policies, whether they favour criminalisation or its alternatives. By all means go to town on them, including the ones who advocate decriminalisation. Just make sure the questioning is directed towards the evidence they have for the effectiveness of their policies rather than the extent to which the policies can be labelled with descriptors — hard, strict, punishing — which better belong in Fifty Shades of Grey.

And I propose something else. I propose that as journalists we ask more questions about the cost of policies that put more people in jail for longer. Given it costs an estimated $75,000 to keep a person in prison for a year, taxpayers deserve to know how much they are paying for “tougher” sentencing. Taking the Western Australian example, if it means even a dozen pot smokers are jailed for two years instead of being given a so-called slap on the wrist, the policy comes at a cost of $1.8 million. If 100 people are jailed, that is $15 million. It is a very expensive way to send a message that may not be received.

The Australia21 report on alternatives to prohibition, which was released this week, has been supported by politicians from all sides. Unfortunately most of those politicians have the word “former” in their title.

In light of the report, Kate Carnell, former Liberal chief minister of the ACT said: “We need to control access to these substances in the same way as we regulate other drugs, rather than leave their production and marketing in the hands of criminals.”

Former premier of Western Australian Carmen Lawrence said: “The call by Australia21 for a national summit to develop a new deal in this difficult area has my firm support.”

It is much harder to get politicians without the word “former” in their title to speak openly about this topic for fear of being cast into the “soft” camp. A few have, such as the Liberals’ Mal Washer and the Greens’ Richard di Natale, who is also a doctor. Di Natale explains the problem like this: “Many politicians privately support drug law reform but only a very few have had the courage to speak up. Australia21 is now setting the agenda for reform and I hope their latest report will spark others to join me in having a frank debate in Parliament.”

I hope so too.