How drug laws are catching up to high-flying professionals

In 2010, 37-year old Richard Buttrose, a restaurateur and nephew of legendary magazine editor Ita Buttrose, was jailed for 12 years and six months for drug trafficking.

That might seem like a lot of prison time, but is relatively lenient considering he was caught with $10.8 million worth of cocaine, and his defence was that selling blow made him feel like 'the man' and that in his social set, using cocaine was regarded much like 'having a glass of wine'.

Professional users

Most recreational drugs are illegal in Australia, but for a generation of young people with open minds and disposable income, that's barely a consideration. Taking ecstasy in NSW, for example, attracts a maximum penalty of a $2200 fine and two years' imprisonment, but for most casual users, the worst punishment they will endure is having to navigate Microsoft Outlook on a comedown.

A certain level of casual drug use is baked into the middle-class of a new generation of young professionals, the vast majority of whom will never be in trouble with the law. And now, laws might be catching up to that reality.

Green energy

In a move likely to be popular with their voter base, The Greens – led by former drug and alcohol doctor Senator Richard Di Natale – recently launched a new policy which hopes to spark the debate for the decriminalisation of recreational drugs like cannabis.

For a certain tax bracket ... drug addiction tends to be treated with luxury yoga holidays rather than 4-7 in Barwon.

It's a debate that ignites every few years. Talking heads are wheeled out to argue that: drug addiction is a chemical, rather than a moral failing, that somewhere around $1.2 billion is spent on enforcing drug law to limited effect.

Foreign states that have legalised and taxed cannabis save money and make buckets of revenue, and more extreme measures than those The Greens propose have met with astonishing success overseas. Police have better things to do than prosecute recreational drug users, and better investment in treatment and education would lead to less risky drug-taking and save lives.

Then someone in leadership will "Just Say No", and the debate goes back to being a private conversation between insufferable hippies at Rainbow Serpent.

The laws, in any case, don't change.


Class action

A cynic might suggest that this is because laws tend to be less a reflection of society as a whole than they are of the class of people entrusted to uphold them.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that lawyers like to get high. You try to find the dedication, attention to detail, long hours, and professional sociopathy required by corporate law without them. Likewise, any self-respecting advertising agency would implode in horror and self-loathing like the haunted house at the end of Poltergeist if they were forced to work without party drugs.

Among ambitious young men in particular, being able to hold your drugs and booze can be a kind of status symbol. A cheeky gram of coke on a weekend is as much a display of wealth as a bayside apartment because socially, Australia seems to be stuck in an alternate timeline where it is always 1983.

As the late Robin Williams put it: "Cocaine is God's way of telling you you're making too much money."

Double standards

For a certain tax bracket, illegal drugs, taken socially, are no big deal. A vice that is not a problem if occasionally indulged. And if it does become a problem, drug addiction tends to be treated with luxury yoga holidays rather than 4-7 in Barwon.

There is a class divide in the way society fights drug addiction – if a restaurateur or stockbroker has a coke problem, it is a health issue. If a factory-hand loses their mind on ice, it tends to be a criminal issue. It's a double standard that speaks of a deep inequity. It's when treatment is not available, when police intervene and expensive lawyers and famous character-witnesses can't be summoned that people start to slip through the cracks.

One man's glass of wine is another's life-ending criminal conviction.

Portugal goals

Insofar as there is a war on drugs, we'll never win it, and those least able to defend against the opportunists on both sides of the law fall prey.

More eloquent voices than mine have argued for reform around the way we deal with drugs as a social issue. Senator Di Natale travelled on a fact-finding mission to Portugal, which decriminalised drugs 15 years ago leading to a decrease in teenage drug use, crime, disease and overdoses.

He argued that, "We have to recognise that locking up people who use drugs is totally counter-productive. What it does is it creates an environment where people who want to seek help don't do it because they have to admit to doing an illegal activity."

Better choices

I've also been on a "fact-finding mission" to Portugal and discovered that, yes it's easy to score drugs there but almost nobody does.

The idea of prohibition is founded on the assumption that adult human beings are incapable of making their own decisions. That assumption has created two tiers of drug-users; those with high-incomes and the resources, education and treatment options to handle problematic use and addiction – and everyone else.

Decriminalisation elsewhere in the world has opened up better avenues of treatment, and with that, people make better choices.

Demystify the high

In Portugal, a decade and a half after decriminalisation, something unexpected has happened. A generation of young people have grown up with no interest in the stuff. Drugs aren't cool. They aren't a rite of passage. They turn nobody into 'the man'.

All that because kids grow up with a realistic expectation of what drugs might do, because they are educated.

When I was a kid, we were told that doing drugs would ruin our lives. That's not quite true. The truth would be something like, "Drugs might ruin your life, but you won't know if they have or not for 30 years. The truth is, if you experiment with drugs, you'll probably be fine. But some people won't."

Some people will try the wrong drug and fall through the social safety net to wake up one day to find themselves poor, sick, desperate, imprisoned. Or even worse, some of them will be caught by that same net, scooped up, bailed out and find that decades have passed, and all they've done is smoke weed, eat Doritos and work on their novel about the "party culture."

We owe our society a debt that neither of these fates is allowed to pass.

Is it time to decriminalise recreational drugs? Let us know what you think in the Comments section.