30 March 2012

The high cost of drug enforcement

An item in Open Medicine, Vol 6, No. 1 (2012), entitled Improving community health and safety in Canada through evidence-based policies on illegal drugs, contains some remarkable data from North America on the high cost of drug law enforcement and the failure to extract anything that might reasonably be called value for money.

Two quotable quotes will suffice:

When the Office of the Auditor General of Canada last reviewed the country’s drug strategy, in 2001, it estimated that of the $454 million spent annually on efforts to control illicit drugs, $426 million (93.8%) was devoted to law enforcement. The report further concluded, “Of particular concern is the almost complete absence of basic management information on spending of resources, on expectations, and on results of an activity that accounts for almost $500 million each year.”

United States
Remarkably, despite an estimated US$1 trillion spent since former US president Richard Nixon first declared his country’s “war on drugs,” the effort to reduce drug supply and drive up drug prices through aggressive drug law enforcement appears to have been ineffective. Instead, in recent decades, the prices of the more commonly used illegal drugs (e.g., cannabis and cocaine) have actually gone down, while potency has risen dramatically.

The costs of drug law enforcement come in other forms than financial outlays by the taxpayer. In Australia just this week we have seen two stories relating to the corrupting effects of drug law enforcement splashed across our front pages, and the story of a high profile ex-AFL player who looks to be in a lot of trouble of a kind that will benefit no-one:

Operation Dayu
Read here Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, $10 million trap nets drug ring from the 24 March edition of The Age and access an edited extract from The Sting: Australia’s plot to trap a global drug empire. The article refers to a multibillion dollar drug and money laundering network which is responsible for the importation into Australia of $1.2 billion worth of drugs annually, some of it distributed by outlaw motorcycle gangs.

The article says that the syndicate has achieved "high-level infiltration of government in both law enforcement agencies and political circles" across much of Asia, including China, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

In addition to the article in The Age, read here a transcript of Mark Colvin’s interview with Nick McKenzie on Radio National’s PM program, Monday 26 March 2012.

Investigation of customs officials
Four days later, in the 28 March edition of The Age, under the headline Customs officers probed, the same two authors write (see here):

Australian border security officials are helping organised crime syndicates smuggle multimillion-dollar shipments of illicit drugs and other contraband into Australia.

Australian law enforcement agencies are investigating more than 24 Customs and Border Protection officials for corruption or misconduct - suspected offences include drug trafficking and leaking sensitive information.

Ben Cousins
Then there is today’s story in The Age about Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins, one of AFL’s most talented players, on bail after his arrest with drugs allegedly hidden in his rectum. A foolish young man no doubt, but who will benefit from his criminalisation if that is what occurs?

As for the impact on Mexico of drug prohibition in the United States, see my earlier post Declare war on the war on drugs.

29 March 2012

Yellow Earth

Hearing former Melbourne Film Festival Director, Ronin Film co-founder and all-round movie buff Geoff Gardner speaking on ABC Radio National’s Movie Time this afternoon reminded me of the debt owed to Geoff by cinema-goers everywhere for his role in stimulating the distribution of fifth generation Chinese films in the West.

In 1984 I was Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade and in that capacity accompanied Prime Minister Bob Hawke on his February 1984 visit to China.  Australia’s exports to China were fairly limited in those days, the principal products being wheat, wool and iron ore.  China was still emerging from the Cultural Revolution and only in the early stages of the policy of “opening to the outside world” which began in 1979.

A number of opportunities began to open up as a result of Hawke’s visit and I found myself a regular visitor to China following up on an increasingly diverse portfolio of opportunities.

After the 1984 Federal Election we had a change of Minister. Lionel Bowen moved on to become Attorney-General, and John Dawkins became Minister for Trade.

Early in 1985 I went to see Dawkins about the China trade agenda. I had a cordial but pretty forthright conversation with him. I said that a lot of things were happening in the trade and economic relationship with China, most of them were his responsibility but a lot of people in other parts of government were climbing onto the bandwagon and he needed to assert himself or things would become very untidy.  I said that it would be a good idea for him to designate someone in his office to be responsible within the office for all matters relating to China so that we would have a single point of contact with whom we could liaise and whom we would keep up to date.

I went on to say that I would be making another visit to China shortly and as I would be going around the various Ministries and central agencies that were important to our objectives in China, if his designated adviser were to accompany me it would be a good opportunity for him to gain a first-hand view of what was going on.

Dawkins thought for a while and nominated Geoff Gardner, who had just joined his staff as an adviser.

A couple of days later Geoff rang me to say that he was aware of an interesting sounding Chinese film which had been completed a few months before but had never been cleared for release, apparently because there was some political ambiguity in the film that made it a bit problematic for release to domestic audiences. It was in a sort of limbo land – it had neither been released nor refused permission. Basically, the Culture Ministry was wondering what the hell to do with it.  Geoff wondered whether it would be possible for us to arrange to have a look at it while we were in Beijing.

I replied that if there were anyone who could organise that it would be our Senior Trade Commissioner in Beijing, Dr Jocelyn Chey, who had had a previous posting in the Australian Embassy Beijing as Cultural Counsellor and who knew everyone who was anyone in the Chinese cultural scene. I got in touch with Jocelyn, and by the time we arrived in Beijing the viewing was all set up.

That film was Yellow Earth (see here), Chen Kaige’s directorial debut, with marvellous cinematography by Zhang Yimou.

I was unable to make it to the screening unfortunately but Geoff and Jocelyn did, and they told their Chinese hosts that they thought it would do well in Australia.  This must have been an attractive proposition for the Ministry of Culture because it would enable the film to be released without engaging the political problems with domestic release, and it was an opportunity for the Ministry to earn hard currency.  In those days, despite growing international reserves, China still thought of itself as a country desperately short of hard currency and individual ministries were always chronically short of it.

Arrangements for the film’s distribution were made fairly quickly (presumably with the assistance of the redoubtable Andrew Pike of Ronin Film, who was running Canberra’s Centre Cinema in those days) and the world premiere of Yellow Earth was held in the good old Centre Cinema, with Chen Kaige in attendance.  I had the great pleasure of seeing it at last on that occasion.  So don’t believe what you read on IMDb suggesting it got its first airing on 10 September 1985 at the Toronto Film Festival – Canberra was the place, I would guess in about June or July 1985.

The film was a great success, and went on to greater things, and as a result of that success we were treated to that succession of electric shadows from China directed by Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and his colleague Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, Shanghai Triad, The Road Home and The House of the Flying Daggers).

I am not suggesting that those films would never have seen the light of day without Geoff’s intervention, but that is how the story began, and I for one am deeply grateful.

26 March 2012

Launch of Report on Illicit Drugs Policy

On Tuesday 31 January 2012 Australia21 convened a roundtable hosted by Sydney University to consider the following question:

What are the likely costs and benefits of a change in Australia’s current policy on illicit drugs?

The decision to convene this roundtable was prompted by the June 2011 release of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (downloadable from here), which definitively concluded that the 40 years old global war on drugs has failed and recommended, inter alia, that governments be encouraged to experiment with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.

Prior to the roundtable Australia21 commissioned a discussion paper by Mr David McDonald, a social research consultant at the Australian National University who specialises in issues at the boundary where public health issues and the criminal law intersect.  Mr McDonald’s paper canvassed the issues raised by the Global Commission Report and set them in an Australian context, addressing issues such as the extent and nature of drug availability and use in Australia, the principal sources of drug related harm in Australia, and the core challenges Australia faces to day in relation to drug policy.

We were fortunate to be able to bring together an extraordinarily high level and diversified group from across the political spectrum to consider this important and sensitive topic.  In alphabetical order the participants were:

Mr Paul Barratt AO
Chair Australia21 and former Secretary, Department of Defence and Department of Primary Industries and Energy

Hon Dr Peter Baume AC
Former Chancellor Australian National University; Federal Senator and Health Minister in the Coalition Government led by Malcolm Fraser

Mr Chris Berg
Research Fellow, Institute of Public Affairs, and  newspaper columnist

Mr Bill Bush
Retired International Lawyer and Member of Families and Friends for Drug Reform

Hon Bob Carr AC
Former Premier of NSW

Hon Kate Carnell AO
Former Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory

Professor Nicholas Cowdery AM, QC
Former Director of Public Prosecutions, NSW

Professor Bob Douglas AO (Chair)
Former Director, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University; Director Australia21

Hon Professor Geoff Gallop AC
Former Premier of Western Australia

Professor Margaret Hamilton AO
Formerly Founding Director of Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Center Victoria, Current Drug Policy Advisor

Mr Brian McConnell
President, Families and Friends for Drug Reform

Ms Marion McConnell
Parent of a son who lost his life to a heroin overdose

Mr David McDonald
Social Research Consultant

Mr Tom Merrett
Second Year University Student, University of Adelaide

Hon Professor Michael Moore
Executive Officer, Public Health Association of Australia and former ACT Health Minister

Ms Vivienne Moxham-Hall
Arts and Science Graduate and Student Representative Councillor, University of Sydney

Mr Mick Palmer, AO, APM
Former Commissioner, Australian Federal Police

Professor Alison Ritter
Director Drug Policy Modeling Program
University of New South Wales

Professor Robin Room
Drug policy researcher and current Director, Turning Point, Victoria

Ms Lyn Stephens
Executive Officer, Australia21

Mr Nick Stump
Former mining industry executive, Director Australia21, Chair Construction Industry Advisory Board on Drugs in the Workplace

Dr Alex Wodak AM
President Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and Former President, International Harm Reduction Association

Hon Dr Michael Wooldridge
Former Federal Minister for Health in the Coalition Government led by John Howard

The report of the roundtable is now at the printers, and it will be launched by roundtable participant Nicholas Cowdery QC, former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, in a Committee Room in Parliament House, Canberra, at 10.00 am for 10.30 am on Tuesday 3 April.

Other roundtable participants at the launch will be Paul Barratt, Chris Berg, Bob Douglas, Brian and Marion McConnell, David McDonald, Mick Palmer and Alex Wodak.

20 March 2012

Andrew Farran responds to Dick Woolcott

On Monday 12 March The Age published a piece by Michelle Grattan (see here) which drew on a comments made by former Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dick Woolcott in a submission to the white paper being prepared by former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry on Australia in the Asian Century.

Grattan quotes Woolcott as saying that the 60-year-old ANZUS Treaty is “somewhat out of date” and that Australia must not be seen to support policies that “contain” China.

Other comments attributed to Woolcott by Grattan caused my friend and colleague former diplomat and defence official Andrew Farran to submit a letter to the editor of The Age, commenting that Woolcott had overstated his case. The letter was never published, but it deserves an airing, and so I reproduce it below, as submitted:

Dick, you overstate your case!

In The Age newspaper recently veteran diplomat Richard (Dick) Woolcott asserted that the ANZUS Treaty was “somewhat out of date” and that Australia had been led into three unsuccessful wars - Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan - in support of policy decisions taken by US Administrations (“How a US ally can be friends with China”, The Age, 12/3).

He was stating this in the context that there was a need for “a more appropriate and up-to-date balance in our relations with the US and China”.

Far from being led into those interventions the record would show that they were actively sought by the Australian governments at the time, in their quest to stay on-side and keep America involved in and committed to this region. Moreover Afghanistan was a UN/internationally sanctioned response to the 9/11 atrocity (at least to the point of neutralising al-Qaeda's base there).

Mr Woolcott was not correct either in stating that “the only occasion on which we sought American support under ANZUS, during Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia in 1964, the US declined”. The fact was that the US did give Australia a guarantee of support if Australian troops got into trouble in Borneo with Sukarno's Indonesia. Australian politicians regarded it as significant given that the situation did not involve a communist power and the treaty refers only to an obligation to ‘consult’. The military wanted boots on the ground and were disappointed that this was excluded from President Kennedy's letter of commitment, but within a couple of years events in Vietnam showed that Kennedy was doing us a favour.

The US has also provided important cover to our forces (logistics and intelligence) for peacekeeping operations, such as in East Timor, and can be expected to do so in any future operations in the South Pacific.

Mr Woolcott also cautioned against offending regional sensitivities, but mistook the recent live cattle fiasco with Indonesia as indicative of Australian shortcomings rather than a consequence of a dysfunctional situation within the current government . 

Andrew Farran