safe injecting room miranda devine war on drugs
A medically supervised injecting room in Melbourne (Image: AAP/TRACEY NEARMY)

The Kings Cross injecting centre was a failure, argued Sydney’s Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine in 2010. After the New South Wales government ended the long trial of the facility and made it permanent, this writer was livid. It had “done nothing demonstrable to reduce heroin use, or cause drug addicts to abstain from the substance that is ruining their lives,” she wrote.

Back in 2003, two years after the centre opened, Devine longed for the Kings Cross of the 1990s, when she lived in the area, because “it still had charms”. Sure, she admitted, “there might have been the odd gangster beaten to death in the middle of the night and mysterious screams outside. But, in those days, drug dealers weren’t obvious unless you were looking.”

The pastor of the Wayside Chapel in the area at the time, Reverend Ray Richmond, told a vastly different story because he was on the frontlines of the drug crisis, and Devine was not. “In Kings Cross [in the 1990s], the police and ambulance services were stretched beyond limits,” he wrote. “Council workers disabled all public-park taps. Restaurants shut toilets to patrons, and users were entering private property for water to mix drugs for needle injecting. Trade in restaurants, coffee shops, and nightclubs decreased. Kings Cross was too dangerous.”

This background is important because Devine has been one of Australia’s most vociferous opponents of drug reform for decades. There’s arguably no public commentator who has been more vocal and at times influential in delaying or stopping drug reforms due to her closeness to the Liberal Party and ability to dominate the news cycle.

In an interview via email, Devine explained that she advocated tough “war on drugs” rhetoric and practice to dissuade people from using illicit drugs. Devine admired the Howard government’s Tough on Drugs campaign that started in 1997, because “for the first time in three decades, fewer young people experimented with drugs and those who did were older”. Devine celebrated the huge numbers of drug seizures and arrests of drug mules, and the strong emphasis on law enforcement.

“The tough on drugs strategy led directly to a heroin drought and falling crime rates — a real world rebuke to criminologists and drug-liberalisers who claim law enforcement attempts to control supply are doomed to fail.”

What Devine ignored was that Howard’s drugs strategy wasn’t just about law enforcement, but a range of other practices to reduce drug taking. The former prime minister responded to an ABC program in 2002 that had challenged his “zero tolerance” approach to drugs. Howard claimed that roughly 60% of his Tough on Drugs funding was “provided to prevention, education, rehabilitation, and diversion of illicit drug users”. He praised what he called the “unprecedented increase” of seized illicit drugs since his policy had been launched in 1997.

Although Devine didn’t state that she believed in US-style mass incarceration of drug users and dealers, she blamed the local courts for being too lenient. In her view, too few people were going to prison for supplying cannabis, ecstasy, and even amphetamines. “For drug users, it’s a slap on the wrist … drugs are ubiquitous and the ambivalence of authorities has rendered them powerless to protect young people from the perils of drug taking. There is next to no penalty for use or dealing. It’s a waste of police time to take it to court. This is defacto decriminalisation.”

Implied in Devine’s answers to my queries was deep frustration that more people weren’t sent to prison, despite the US being a prime example of how catastrophic this policy had been (all without reducing drug taking amongst the population).

She argued that legalising marijuana was a mistake, and would lead to greater use and mental-health problems. Devine and I agreed — and it was the only time — when she claimed that, “Drug use isn’t a victimless crime. We’ve been bombarded with campaigns about blood diamonds, sweatshop sneakers, fair-trade coffee and cruel fur. But the case against recreational coke snorting is more compelling. It fuels the drug-trade, causing misery and corruption in places such as South America and West Africa.”

Devine is right about this, and it’s an issue that rarely gets mentioned in the drug debate. My book reports on the misery, poverty, corruption, and violence in Central America and West Africa caused by the cocaine trade, leading to many people’s lives being undeniably ruined or at least negatively affected by the use and abuse of cocaine in the West. Despite this, I’ve rarely seen a sustained public campaign in Australia or globally to connect the dots and explain what this demand leads to in the poorest nations on earth. How about encouraging a belief in ethical drug taking? In fair-trade cocaine?

Devine’s reason for arguing this is different from mine — I support a healthy, safe, and legal recreational drug market, while she does not — and yet she inadvertently highlights what snorting cocaine in Sydney, London, or New York means for a poor farmer in Guinea-Bissau.

One of Devine’s more controversial columns was published in 2016. Under the headline “Ice them: time to sterilise drug-addicted parents”, she called for a “truly radical program [that] would be to offer addicts a sterilisation bonus, like the baby bonus, so they can wreck their own lives but no babies are harmed in the process. If that’s too draconian, how about an incentive to take long-term contraception?” Devine wrote this after her newspaper was outraged about the government providing a “taxpayer-funded nanny” to an ice user who had had her eight children removed by the state.

She told me that her call for sterilisation came from a place of worrying about future generations of drug users, and that many commenters on The Daily Telegraph website approved of the suggestion.

TV host David Campbell strongly opposed it, however, saying that sterilisation “worked really well in Nazi Germany, but this is Australia so that’s not really an argument”.

Devine was a puritanical Catholic who loathed the changes in modern society, from the prevalence of single-parent families to the acceptance of same-sex marriage. (She partly blamed the 2011 London riots on “the manifestation of a fatherless society”.) Her opposition to drug use fitted this worldview, whereby individuals who took illegal substances had to be punished. Liberalism had to be rejected as a virtue.

I never saw her question why the government deemed certain drugs illegal, and whether it made practical and moral sense to do so. Devine had more influence years ago, as did her paper, The Daily Telegraph. Since then, growing numbers of Australians have either taken drugs or know somebody who has, and they have realised that in the majority of cases it was a harmless and fun activity.

This is an edited extract from Antony Loewenstein’s book, Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, published by Scribe, out now.