WHETHER we want to admit it or not, drug use in this country is effectively normalised, despite decades of effort to prosecute what amounts to an endless "war on drugs".
The various damaging impacts of long-term drug use are real, but the persistence with which people continue to use illicit substances, despite the warnings, can be taken to mean that society by and large no longer listens to the moralistic messages that once accompanied political and law-enforcement demands to "just say no".
That said, one of the most interesting results from the latest study by the federally funded Australian Institute of Health and Welfare concerns alcohol and tobacco, which remain the biggest problem in substance abuse despite being originally viewed as nothing to do with "the drug problem".
This can be seen in national mortality figures that showed almost 21,000 people dying from tobacco-related causes in 2015, followed by some 6500 alcohol deaths and fewer than 2500 dying from other drugs.
Nationally, the broader pattern is one of steadily escalating drug use.
Extrapolating from extensive testing of waste-water samples, the Australian Crime Intelligence Commission estimates the nation consumed more than 11.6 tonnes of ice amphetamine in 2018-19 (up from 8.4 tonnes in 2016-17), 4.6 tonnes of cocaine (3 tonnes in 2016-17), 2.2 tonnes of the ecstasy-type stimulant MDMA (up from 1.2 tonnes in three years) and almost a tonne of heroin (up from 830kg).
This is a serious amount of drug use, and a conceptual shift in the public's attitude towards drug-taking can be seen in the AIHW's survey findings of a preference for education and rehabilitation, over law-enforcement, as a primary response.
The normalisation of drugs is perhaps not surprising, given the liberation of society created by the seismic shift of the 1960s.
Prohibition since then has done little to quell either supply or demand of illicit drugs, whereas public health programs on smoking, especially, and alcohol have been shown to influence people's habits.
Perhaps it's time for more politicians to "follow the science", rather than exercise their instincts to rely on punishment as a deterrent.
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