Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Price of drugs high in Oz

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BRISBANE -- Every Monday morning in courts across Australia, they shuffle in with bowed heads admitting that, yes, they inhaled or ingested or in some cases, injected.

Some are told to "go and sin no more" with no conviction recorded. Many more repeat offenders, however, are given a cross to bear for the rest of their lives.

Australia's drug laws are not draconian, but neither are they as liberal as perhaps they should be on a planet where the last three leaders of the free world took substances that would have made them criminals had they the misfortune to be caught.

They may have issues with policy positions on a range of issues, but few sane Americans would argue Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama were unfit for office because they may have once smoked marijuana.

While drug rehabilitation is often the preferred sentence of many judges and magistrates in the cases of a first offender, there are still statutory requirements for harsher penalties including imprisonment for repeat offenders.

More worryingly, in the northern state of Queensland, the state government has taken away a judicial discretion in handling cases involving drug dealing.

Judges could once assess mitigating circumstances, such as a young offender selling some excess marijuana he or she may have purchased for their own use.

Now, drug traffickers will only be eligible for parole after serving at least 80 per cent of their sentence regardless of their age and the circumstances of their case.

Australia's drug laws are compounded by the fact this is an island nation, a fact many Australians are quietly pleased about as we watch landlocked European nations rubbing angry shoulders with the neighbours.

"When they were handing out continents, not many people got one'' was a favourite saying of former Labour prime minister Paul Keating.

But isolation means Australians pay premium prices for illegal drugs.

In 2011, the federal parliamentary joint committee on law enforcement revealed markups on illegal drugs are massive.

Heroin was typically priced in Britain at US$29,569 a kilogram while in America it reached US$71,200. In Australia it costs as much as a modest house -- US$221,304. In Colombia, a kilogram of cocaine might be US$2,348 which in turn might be sold in Canada for between US$10,000 and US$70,000.

Those on this island inclined to indulge in addictive and potentially dangerous recreations might pay somewhere between US$150,000 and US$250,000, depending on the market mood.

Michael Phelan, deputy commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, told the committee supply represented both a challenge and opportunity for drug cartels who justify markups because of increased risks of delivery.

"Those that are willing to pay for it at that particular price slide you up the demand curve and the price curve and you end up paying those terrible wholesale prices for it, which in turn see the profits and people willing to do it,'' he said.

"It is a couple of years' salary, the wholesale price for a kilo of cocaine."

Clearly some are willing to pay up. The Australian Crime Commission released its Illicit Drug Data Report 2011-12 last week. It revealed an increasingly robust appetite among Australians for illegal drugs.

A record 23.8 tonnes of illicit drugs were seized nationally. Illicit drug seizures and arrests were the highest reported in the last decade.

While police rightly congratulate themselves on their diligence, Dr. Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, posted comments on the foundation's website echoing the exasperation of those who understand the futility of prohibition.

Just as Al Capone got rich on a forbidden fruit equally as toxic as any prohibited drug, so do the cartels thrive on the laws making criminals of the young, curious and, yes, largely innocent.

Drugs can be dangerous, but in Australia we have managed to curb use of one of the more lethal ones -- tobacco -- without outlawing it.

Wodak noted the Organization of American States representing 33 governments of North, Central and South America also recently released a two-volume report on drug policy.

"The OAS is the first multinational organization to acknowledge that drug prohibition has not worked and cannot succeed.''

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press

correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly

about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2013 A13

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