Internationally there are signs of a change in thinking on the issue of illicit drugs. The United Nations, once a strong defender of the law enforcement/zero tolerance solution has shown that it is prepared to change. It has moved from the futile statement of its undersecretary, Pino Arlacchi, who claimed the world could be drug free by 2008 to a position of recognition of the reality. In a joint statement between UNODC, WHO and UNAIDS it has thown its full weight behind needle and syringe programs and opioid substitution therapy.
However objectivity and reality is not universal and UK Prime Minister Brown, against advice, rescheduled cannabis on the same par as heroin. Such populist actions mean we will remain in the dark ages of drug policy for some time yet.
In Australia the welcome attention to alcohol has unfortunately deprived illicit drug policy of the attention that it deserves. Even so, the change of government signalled the end of the Howard zero tolerance rhetoric and the ALP has indicated its full support for harm minimisation and relevant ministers since the election have reiterated that commitment. To date, though, there has been little to indicate an official willingness to address the contradictions between the three arms of the national harm minimisation policy of supply reduction, harm reduction and demand reduction. Measures in pursuit of any one of these arms needs to be co-ordinated to ensure, on the basis of the best available evidence, that such measures do not undermine the other arms, something that law enforcement so often does.
At a state level, facilities like the supervised injecting room in Sydney could be under threat of closing – not so much from the current government but from the possibility of a change of government with a different philosophy toward that facility. Maintenance treatments for addiction and needle and syringe programs are always in constant threat of funding or resource cutbacks, notwithstanding that these services already continue to be under funded and under resourced.
In the ACT our focus has been on the new prison especially in relation to NSPs and strip searching. At time of writing the prison was almost complete with preparations for the transfer of prisoners back from NSW to commence in February – somewhat later than expected. I have been nominated to represent the ACT Coalition on Corrections on a community monitoring and evaluation group of the prison. Only a few meetings of that group have been held.
A great deal of work in respect of the Coalition has been undertaken by members of FFDLR and a significant number of public forums promoting good prison practices have been held. However while the government has promoted the prison as human rights compliant, there seems to be a limit to that claim. In the last days of the majority ALP government an amendment to the Corrections Management Act was pushed through with no community consultation. It allowed for the routine strip-searching of prisoners – a practice contrary to human rights expectations.