The recent cocaine-related conviction of the well-connected Sydneysider Richard Buttrose has helped to perpetuate stereotypes about cocaine being the party drug of the rich.
Nothing could be further from the truth, says Dr Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.
“The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee recently released a report, ‘The Cocaine Trade’, which concluded that cocaine powder use is increasing steeply in the UK. The number of adults and young people in the UK reporting cocaine use within the past year quintupled between 1996 and 2008/09.
In contrast, illicit drug use overall fell during the same period. The purity of cocaine at both wholesale and street levels has fallen. Some street level seizures now consist of only 5% cocaine. The street price of cocaine has halved since 1999. Surprisingly, wholesale price at the border has doubled.
The Committee was uncertain about the effectiveness of UK efforts to reduce the quantity of cocaine arriving in the country. The leading UK drug law enforcement agency seized 85.1 tonnes of cocaine worldwide in 2008/09 in joint operations with partner organisations. But there was no way of establishing what proportion of these seizures was due to UK efforts. Seizures alone, the Committee concluded, do not adequately measure the effectiveness of efforts to disrupt ‘upstream’ trafficking networks.
The combined efforts of UK drug law enforcement seized only 3.5 tonnes of cocaine in the country in 2009 out of an estimated 25-30 tonnes of cocaine entering Britain each year. The Committee agreed that interception of only 12-14% of the cocaine reaching the UK is ‘woefully inadequate’. The number of cocaine seizures fell in 2008/09. The seizure target for 2010 is 2.4 tonnes of cocaine, less than the quantity seized in the two previous years.
The doubling in wholesale price of cocaine at the UK border between 1999 and 2009 suggests that law enforcement efforts have had some impact on supply to the UK. But the consensus is that enforcement has not affected street level cocaine availability.
Users of cocaine powder have now diversified from the ‘rich and famous’ to a far wider cross-section of society. The Committee concluded that this, together with the large increase in the number of cocaine powder users, called for more emphasis on reducing demand. One encouraging sign was that access to community-based treatment for cocaine users has improved.
A 1997 RAND study found that the benefit to the US from a $US 1 million investment in mandatory minimum sentences was a 13 kg reduction in cocaine use. A similar investment in conventional sentences would yield a 27 kg reduction in cocaine use while this investment in drug treatment of heavy users of cocaine would be a 103 kg reduction in cocaine use. In 2003, commonwealth and state governments in Australia allocated 56% of illicit drug expenditure to drug law enforcement but only 17% to drug treatment. A study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that having 100 heroin users on methadone treatment for 12 months prevents 12 fewer robberies, 57 fewer break and enters and 56 fewer motor vehicle thefts.
Both sides of politics in Australia claim to support a low taxing-small government approach. Yet when it comes to drug policy, both seem to support a high taxing-big government approach which these days even government reports admit doesn’t work.”