We’ve educated the public many times. Why can’t we do it for drugs?

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It will soon be cheaper to do a line of cocaine every night than be a pack-a-day smoker, which proves making something illegal doesn’t make it unpopular.

In the budget, the federal government committed nearly $250 million to battle the black market for vapes and for a new anti-smoking campaign, which continues the trend of treating smokers as criminals and some criminals as celebrities.

Tobacco is a shrinking market (about $13 billion) while illegal drugs are spiking (up from $8.9 billion to $10.3 billion), suggesting superannuation funds should invest in cocaine cartels rather than commercial buildings.

The underlying problem is that we expect governments to fix problems and then bag them when they don’t.

Many Australians love our image as likeable larrikins who don’t take authority too seriously but can be relied upon to step up in a crisis. The Anzacs have burnt that culture into our very soul.

And it does exist. Natural disasters result in hundreds of acts of bravery and selflessness as people help neighbours and strangers.

But the rest of the time, we love authority and can’t get enough of it. Forget the Boxing Kangaroo, we are sheep that need the cattle dog to give us a nip to send us on our way.

One can only wonder what the Man From Snowy River would make of walking into toilets to see a sign with instructions not to squat on the seat or void oneself on the floor. Do we need to be reminded in a pedestrian underpass “Do not spit” or on a takeaway coffee cup “Warning: contents may be hot”?

The workers who built the Great Ocean Road would be perplexed at signs advising people not to stop in the middle of the road to watch wandering koalas, or messages to tourists at viewing points not to clamber over fences to take selfies on crumbling cliffs for their Insta pages.

The new rule is if we don’t like it, ban it and it will go away. The Hitler salute? Ban it, even though puffed-up outrage only gives these attention addicts an audience.

Racial vilification is against the law, with a penalty of up to six months’ jail. Never mind that incitement to commit an act of violence has always been a criminal offence with a penalty of 10 years.

The truth is we are policing ourselves, with jokes and comments once tolerated now (thankfully) called out. Nine AFL spectators have been banned this year for racist comments in crowds of more than 2.7 million, which is about .0000033 per cent.

Ban the boo, they cry, ignoring the fact AFL fans may be the best behaved in the world (with apologies to meatball-munching Swedish speed-skating aficionados).

Many of these new offences are just feel-good sugar hits. (Did we mention sugar? Ban it.)

Here is the rub. There are two groups who love headline-grabbing new laws — politicians and crooks. Politicians because they look tough, and crooks because they protect their markets.

When pubs closed at 6pm and couldn’t open on Sunday, sly grog was bigger than Uber Eats. When off-course betting was banned, cops in all police stations were paid off and SP bookies worked out of lanes and in every pub.

When games of chance were made illegal we had the two-up school, illegal card games and gangster-run baccarat games.

Policing our way out of the demand for illicit drugs will never work because we love them, with a history of gobbling, swallowing, snorting and injecting anything from horse sedatives to magic mushrooms.

If horse manure produced a hallucinatory side effect, hippies would roll in it like overly enthusiastic cocker spaniels. A man died in New South Wales after having the secretions of a poisonous frog rubbed on his body, for goodness’ sake. Who even thinks of that?

A portion of 58 kilograms of the drug known as ice, which Australian Federal Police seized in Sydney in February 2013. Credit: Reuters

In 1971, US president Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs, and how did that work?

In Australia, we started with cocaine in the 1920s, jumped to over-the-counter painkillers in the 1950s, heroin in the 1980s, speed in the 1990s, and to designer pills, ice and God knows what through the dark web.

We have a massive appetite for the gear but not for the debate. Any rational discussion questioning the war on drugs is immediately shut down — much to the relief of drug dealers.

The Grim Reaper AIDS ad lingers in our memory.

More than 10 years ago, a group of prominent Australians, including former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, QC, and retired Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer, backed a report that found law enforcement wasn’t working.

Thirty-five years ago, former Victorian deputy commissioner Paul Delianis came to the same conclusion. No one apparently listened.

For the established drug dealers, police are their greatest allies. Regular arrests cull the less efficient, and regular seizures ensure the market is not flooded, maintaining prices. Don’t shoot your rivals, just dob them in to the cops.

Despite record seizures, drug users say they are having no problems finding their product of choice, with reports now that Australia runs second only to Belgium for dark web drug traffic.

For there is an iron law of crime: Where there is a demand, there will be supply.

The only way to change community standards is to take the community with you, and it can be done — with a combination of education backed with sanctions.

When we had the AIDS epidemic, we didn’t ban sex but rather invested in education and scare campaigns such as the Grim Reaper.

Here are four of the best campaigns that helped change the way we live.


In the bad old days, Dad would drink six long-neck beers at a barbecue then pile the kids in the back of the Holden and drive them home, with no one taking a blind bit of notice.

Strong law enforcement combined with advertising campaigns mean such behaviour is generally not acceptable. Peer group disapproval is as strong a deterrent as a Booze Bus.

Thousands of lives have been saved since Victoria’s road toll in 1971 stood at a record 1061.


In the 1970s, the Yarra River stank, some beaches were unswimmable, we hosed the concrete driveway, briquette heaters were in vogue, most backyards had an incinerator to burn everything from leaves to plastics, and electric cars were restricted to Scalextric model racers. (I had a Cobra. It was ace.)

Now we have recycling, solar panels, irrigation timers and low-power light globes. We are motivated by the heart and the hip pocket. Climate change is a reality and so are massive rises in power bills. It is as simple as the (free-range) chicken and the (organic) egg.


A few generations ago, people would lay in the sun for hours glistening like garlic bread, tradies worked bare-chested, sun cream was a combination of coconut oil and butter, and a sun tent was a prop in the movie, Lawrence of Arabia.

Peter O’Toole as the sunsmart Lawrence of Arabia.Credit: Photo: AP

Now the only people on the beach unprotected are British backpackers and the bewildered, while kids wear hats and sun tops, and parents are usually found under pop-up protection that requires a degree from NASA to erect.


Not that long ago, we had the Marlboro Man, Paul Hogan was the craggy face of Winfield, race teams were fuelled by nicotine ads, and you smoked wherever you wanted. The first time I walked into a newsroom, the editor had the complexion of an adolescent chimney sweep.

In 1980, 35 per cent of adults smoked, now it is near to 10 per cent. Smart advertising campaigns, massive price hikes, reduced retail outlets and restricted areas where smoking is permissible have smashed the habit for many.

An Asian prime minister visiting Melbourne once mentioned how well the street workers were dressed. It turned out he was referring to city office workers who had slipped out for a gasper.

I don’t have a view on decriminalising drugs, but I do support putting all ideas on the table.

In 1983, prime minister Bob Hawke held a national crime summit at the old Parliament House involving just about every expert in the land. It resulted in the National Crime Authority.

Bob Hawke and then health minister Neal Blewett at the premiers’ conference on the National Drug Strategy in April 1985.Credit: David James Bartho

Two years later, he chaired a state, territory and federal leaders’ meeting that made this commitment:

“To mount a National Campaign Against Drug Abuse in which all governments will co-operate and which will also seek the full involvement and support of the community as a whole.

“The campaign will place a major emphasis on reducing the demand for drugs through education, treatment and rehabilitation programs.”

This resulted in the National Drug Strategy for alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs that remains in operation today.

Perhaps it is time to revisit this, with a national conference to examine whether we are doing enough and are on the right path. We need a 20-year commitment, signed by premiers, the prime minister and their opposition equivalents, to install a national criminal code and pledge that for every dollar spent on enforcement, one must be spent on rehabilitation and education.

Or just make convicted drug boss Tony Mokbel treasurer. After all, he always delivered a surplus.

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