Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Socialist solutions needed to address drug issues

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The war on drugs has failed

Last month a number of right-wing Latin American leaders called for a new approach to the dealing with the illicit drug industry that wracks their continent. In turn, here in Australia, a number of normally neo-liberal leaders such as Foreign Minister Bob Carr declared the 30-year old ‘War on Drugs’ to be a failure and called for a new direction in drug policy.

The United Nations claims the global trade in drugs generated US$321.6 billion in 2003, slightly less than 1% of total global commerce. This illegal industry is run by brutal and exploitative cartels that pay poppy and coca growers in places like Afghanistan and Colombia a pittance, then manufacture the finished product and use an army of smugglers to get it to the Western markets where it is sold by another army of suppliers.

In the first half of the last century, drugs like cocaine were legal and freely available. They were used as pain relief and even found in Coca Cola. During the 20th century, laws were tightened and a number of drugs were made illegal.

An attempt in the 1920s to ban the more popular alcohol in the US was a total failure and since then alcohol and nicotine (the biggest killers) have been sold legally but in a restricted way and heavily taxed. Drugs like heroin, cocaine and cannabis were less used and therefore easier to ban.

In 1970 US President Nixon introduced his ‘Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act’ to eliminate the production, supply and consumption of illegal drugs. This was an attempt to deal with the heroin epidemic amongst US servicemen in Vietnam, which in turn was linked to their demoralisation fighting an unjust war.

In the 1980s Ronald Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’ was not least a way of expanding the US military presence in Latin America after the retreats following Vietnam. At its peak, the US invaded Panama in 1989 to ousted President Noriega whom the US considered a cog in the regions’ drug industry.

Now, 30 years on, it is clear the ‘War on Drugs’ has not worked. More people than ever are taking drugs including 3.6 million Australians. The criminalisation of the industry has led to an explosion in incarcerations. The US is an extreme example with 500,000 people in jail for drug offences, compared to 40,000 in 1981. Parts of northern Mexico are effectively outside the control of the central state machine and in the past five years, 47,000 have died, often brutally, in Mexico’s drug wars.

The calls by Latin American leaders and Bob Carr are purely pragmatic. They want to take the industry out of the hands of the illegal sector and put it under ‘legal’ big business control in terms of production, distribution and sale. The state could then tax it, opening up a new revenue stream. The Australian claims that taxes could equal as much as $6 billion a year for Canberra!

The massive expenses of prisons, police and surveillance fighting the war on drugs could be slashed, which is a powerful incentive for neo-liberals in these times. The problem they face in shifting course on drug policy is the social conservatism they themselves created in the past to support their system and justify their old policies.

For socialists, we see drug abuse as a public health issue, not a law and order issue. We support decriminalisation of drug use to free millions of ordinary people trapped in criminality due to their addiction.

We think the production and sale of alcohol, tobacco and currently illegal drugs should be taken under democratic state control. In this way the quality of the products can be controlled and it can be sold, without advertising, in a restricted way to non-minors.

Side-by-side with this approach we support investment in education programs about the effects of alcohol, tobacco and drugs. We also support free needle exchanges and the creation of safe injecting facilities to cut the number of heroin related deaths.

Recreational drug use will probably always exist to some degree, however in a socialist society where wealth is shared and everyone has a future, we could expect to see a drop in the number of people using drugs in a harmful and glutinous way. The need for forms of self-medication against the horrors of everyday life under capitalism would be massively eroded.

By Stephen Jolly


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the problems with capitalism. The Socialist strives to explain the systemic causes of this crisis, and reports about the issues that are important to working people. We also help to organise struggles against the powers that be.

We don’t receive a cent from big business or governments. Our work is fully funded by our supporters. Even if half the people who read our website every month donated a few dollars each we would raise thousands to help our work!

We need organisations of struggle now more than ever, so if you support what we do please consider making a donation.

One-off or regular donations can be made securely HERE.