The Failed ‘War on Drugs’ – Decriminalising Drug Use is the Answer – Part 1

The Failed ‘War on Drugs’ – Decriminalising Drug Use is the Answer – Part 1

Written by Perth Criminal Lawyer, Rhett Williamson.


The use of drugs, of both the illicit and non-illicit kind, in society is nothing new, in fact substance use, in one form or another, permeates almost every culture throughout the history of mankind.

Any substance that has an effect on your mental state is defined as a psychoactive substance, they are commonly known as drugs. Such drugs are defined as any chemical, which upon entering your bloodstream, will result in alterations in perception, mood, consciousness,cognition, and behaviour. It includes substances used recreationally such as alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, ecstasy (MDMA), opiates, cannabis and methamphetamine, and those used for medical purposes such as anaesthetics, anti-depressants, sleeping tablets and other prescription medications, including over-the-counter medications such as ‘pain killers’.

If you thought the use of drugs was something new in society, or that it dates back only 100 or 200 years, you are wrong, in fact drug use dates back as far as the earliest records, there are ancient images which suggest that humans were using opium as far back as 7,000 years ago.

The Egyptians, we know from papyrus records, were brewing alcohol in 3,500 B.C.  Then there is reference by Greek philosophers to the drinking of ‘poppy juice’ in 300 B.C.

Teachings within the Christian bible, state that Jesus’s first ever ‘miracle’ was when he turned water into wine. The story goes that Jesus was at a wedding and all the alcohol ran out, however noticing this terrible situation, Jesus, is said to have surprised everyone at the party with his ‘special powers’ by taking barrels of water and instantly turning them into wine. Again, in the bible, at the ‘Last Supper’ Jesus and his followers are drinking non-other than, you guessed it, wine. Now, whether you believe the stories of the bible or not is not the point. What is clear is that the recreational use of drugs has been well ingrained in society for many thousands of years and the drive or compulsion to somehow alter one’s mental state through the use of substances has been etched in the human psyche since the dawn of time.

Drug use transcends all historical cultures, from the Native American Indians who smoked cannabis in their religious ceremonies, to the Polynesian islanders who would drink kava at social and religious gatherings; kava is a sedative derived from the plants roots.

The use of opium permeates cultures throughout every age, from literally prehistoric times through to the Babylonians, the times of the Roman Empire and through to China and the Far East, the consumption of opium continues today, with Afghanistan being the worlds largest producer of opium – opium makes up an estimated 60% of Afghanistan’s total GDP.

In African countries the chewing of khat leaf is widespread, like amphetamines, khat is a stimulant, and its use in a social and cultural context stems back thousands of years.

The above examples of cultural and social drug use throughout history simply demonstrate that drug use, in its many forms, is so extensive and so inherent in humans as cultural and social beings, that there must be something within humans that causes them to seek out drugs, that causes them to want to alter their mental state. If you ask most people why they drink, they will tell you it is because they enjoy it, therein lies the answer, as humans we are pleasure seeking creatures. We seek out those things that we enjoy and avoid things that we dislike. It might seem plainly obvious, but this is a natural desire.

The Criminalisation of Drugs

Although prohibition and criminalisation of drugs has escalated over the last 100 years, the concept is not new. The attempted prohibition of alcohol consumption, for example, dates back to the writings of an Egyptian priest 4,000 years ago, who wrote “I, thy superior, forbid thee to go to the taverns. Thou art degraded like beasts.” In 1736, in England, The Gin Act was introduced in an attempt to make spirits “so dear to the consumer that the poor will not be able to launch into excessive use of them.” – needless to say, this was a wildly unsuccessful attempt, unless you measure success by increased law breaking and an increase in alcohol sales.

In 17th century Russia, anyone caught in possession of tobacco would be executed. In the same century, in the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan would execute anyone caught smoking tobacco. Not to be outdone, the Germans introduced the death sentence for anyone caught smoking tobacco in 1691. And yet the smoking of tobacco continues around the world to this day.

In 1920 the United States of America made the sale and supply of alcohol illegal, the prohibition lasted until 1933.

The reasoning behind drugs being criminalised by the government is that drug use, like prostitution, was associated with immorality, however one cannot legislate upon morality because everyone has a right to live their life by their own moral code.