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Policy on drugs endangers youth
By Vivienne Moxham-Hall. First published in The Sydney Morning Herald.
When you get to high school, you are taught that drugs are ''bad''. The teachers show you pictures and tell you the horror stories about drugs, but at that age, you can never really believe that something which looks like a sugar pill can wreak all that damage and the stories never really quench any curiosity.
The kids at my high school, and others, started experimenting with drugs about the age of 16, when most of us were in year 9. It was mainly cannabis that they would smoke after school and it was usually the ''cool'' kids.
But in years 10 and up, the appeal of drugs widened. Whole groups of friends were made around the rave culture and moved towards harder drug experimentation.
Raving is where large groups of young adults of varying ages would dance to electronic beats while ''pinging''. The locations of these raves were often released the same day they occurred to avoid detection.
These kids would practice their rave moves in their lunch break and were very open about what they did if you asked. Other groups would experiment at parties or within their group of friends.
High school is very much a time of social experimentation and drugs seemed to become an integral component of the high school experience for some people. The criminalisation of drugs means experimentation can be harder and riskier. Often kids won't know what they are taking or can take very dangerous risks in mixing their drugs. If something goes wrong, the fear of their parents, of the police and what they might do, often stops them from calling an ambulance. It was understood that you didn't call an ambulance if something went wrong.
I personally have never taken any drugs besides alcohol for my own reasons. People often don't believe me, and whenever I decline an offer of drugs it can be met with incredulity.
My friends have shielded me from a lot of the social stigma that is attached to being ''anti-drugs'' as I came to that resolution quite early in my high school years. Some people will want an explanation, while others may just write you off. I have always been very curious about drugs and a lot of my closest friends have experimented a lot with different kinds of drugs.
At my year 12 formal I found myself the only sober and drug-free individual in my group of friends. They had all taken a pill halfway through the night and had a connection that I was never going to be able to replicate. They had done something dangerous together, bonded and experienced the same trip.
At university, it became more common to experiment with drugs or smoke pot with everyone upstairs at a party or, for a lot of people in hospitality, just to get through the night at work. There was still the criminal risk associated with it, which could give them a permanent criminal record and devastate their future job prospects, depending on what they wanted to do. But everyone else was doing it, so it didn't seem to matter so much.
Drugs have become so normalised in today's youth culture the penalties just don't matter as much. Not only that, but the subcultures with the highest rates of drug consumption - raves, clubs, music festivals and hospitality - have the police almost turning a blind eye to small rates of drug consumption because it is already so common. Prohibition is not working.
In Portugal, drugs were decriminalised in 2001. Today there is a bulk of evidence pointing to Portugal as a leader in drug reform. Not only have rates of drug use declined in almost every measured category, but Portugal also has the least amount of drug use when compared with the EU countries with more stringent criminalisation measures.
A prominent white paper by Glenn Greenwald on the Portugal decriminalisation also documented an absolute decrease in prevalence rates of drug use in the 15 to 19 age group, a milestone for youth health. The evidence in Portugal shows decriminalisation would save the Australian government upward of $2 billion on police, judicial, legal and corrective expenditure, and also decrease the harm that is happening to the young people in Australia.
Our drug policy is a public health issue. It is criminalising kids and endangering the health and safety of the youth of today. My experience has shown me drugs aren't going away. It has shown me prohibition has failed.
Australia needs to look for a better way of dealing with drug use than turning a blind eye or punishing those who fall prey to the allure of the promise of happiness in a pill. Portugal's decriminalisation demonstrates there is a viable alternative that we should be seriously considering.
Vivienne Moxham-Hall is completing a master's of health policy at the University of Sydney. She participated in the Australia21 roundtable and will be part of a public forum hosted by the Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Ideas tonight.
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