Policy inertia and democracy

It’s not new to argue that the War on Drugs is senseless policy which flies in the face of all the evidence of its flaws. It perpetuates the conditions which make it attractive for people to grow plants which produce drugs, like coca which is turned into cocaine. It supports the organised crime in Western countries as well as developing countries – these networks of illegal distribution are necessary to move the drugs from the production into the supply markets. Recently, things have started to get seriously out of hand in Mexico, for example, with hackers Anonymous becoming involved to highlight the lawlessness which has resulted from the power of the drug cartels. And it’s seriously profitable – not only for those who actually distribute the drugs into countries like Australia and America, but even for farmers – compared to other ‘cash crops’ like coffee, growing coca is significantly more profitable.

And, the public health effects of drugs on the end-user have been well documented also. The current punitive regime and incarceration of drug users has been shown to be completely ineffective, and seriously costly.

What has struck me this week is the length of time these things are discussed, and how long change can take to occur. I’ve been re-watching the first season of The West Wing recently, and the episodes lately have been dealing with The War on Drugs, as well as climate change – from the point of view of a fictional Democratic party administration. What has been so frustratingly demonstrated to me is that these things have been on the reform agenda for more than 15 years. Seriously, all of the arguments against the War on Drugs were just presented in a circa 2000 released episode, and all of the merits of a cap-and-trade carbon system were discussed in the same episode. It was spooky to listen to – much of the rest of the series has been like a time-travel experience – this could have been a sound bite from today’s news.

On the one hand, I understand that social change can take time. And that we have deliberate checks on our system that ensure government can’t make sweeping changes overnight – it prevents horrific change and safeguards democracy from too much power being in the hands of the few. But I also feel that, perhaps because of public opinion and the unwillingness to show leadership on difficult policies (it’s never going to be popular to be ‘soft on crime’ or ‘promote drug use’ or ‘increase the cost of living’) these hard battles are left to be fought by someone else. The next Prime Minister, the next President. Someone else. Perhaps it’s also very difficult to attract the attention span of the media and the public to craft a complex argument in favour of some difficult policy decisions, to explain that the War on Drugs is actually counter productive. It can be hard to see a way to cut through the rhetoric and move towards policy based on evidence.

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