Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Council toothless in war on drugs

The zero-tolerance approach has failed to reduce overdose deaths, writes Brian McConnell

The Australian National Council on Drugs has been in operation for almost three years and the terms of its members are up for renewal next month.

Just what has the ANCD achieved in those three years?

It came as a result of the veto by Prime Minister John Howard of a proposed ACT Heroin Trial. In July 1997 the Ministerial Council on Drugs (a body comprising all health and police ministers), had agreed to the proposed trial of prescription heroin. Two weeks later, reacting to the criticism from the Daily Telegraph and talkback radio, Howard vetoed the trial.

There was an outcry from professionals and families affected by heroin. Polls later showed strong support for a heroin trial. Howard found himself caught in the crossfire.

To deflect the criticism he introduced his "Tough on Drugs Strategy" in November 1997. The Australian National Council on Drugs was established in March the following year.

"The new Council will ensure that the expert voice of non-government organisations and individuals working in the drug field reaches all levels of government and influences policy," said Howard at the time.

He wanted the council, and his hand picked chairman, the Salvation Army’s Major Brian Watters, to pursue a "zero tolerance" approach.

"It is no secret that Major Watters adopts the view, as do many others, including myself, that the policy of zero tolerance of drug taking in this country is a wholly credible policy and a policy that ought to be pursued more vigorously by government," he said in Parliament on May 25,1998:

Other members of the council represented a broader view and include some of Australia’s most experienced and respected people in this field.

The PM gave very clear priorities for the council, including reducing the number of drug daths. In in 1996 there had been 526 heroin-related deaths in Australia. Eighty-five percent of those involved people who were not in treatment.

Major Watters had no doubt that the council had to perform effectively. In his first Chairman’s report he said: "... if the ANCD does not produce tangible and measurable outcomes then it is proper to question both its value and continuance."

He continued "In short, we all want to see lives saved."

The irony of these words should not be lost. Both men strongly and ideologically oppose a heroin-prescription trial - a measure, demonstrated in Switzerland to reduce overdose deaths and drug-related crime.

The ANCD has certainly allocated some much-needed money, but in the most critical areas of overdose deaths and influencing government policy, it has made no difference whatsoever.

The number of people who have used illicit drugs in the previous 12 months is increasing. Despite increased seizures, illicit drugs are more easily available and cheaper. Drug related crimes are increasing. Overdose deaths have continued to rise from the 526 deaths in 1996 to 958 in 1999.

One can only conclude that the "Tough on Drugs Strategy" and the council has had little or no impact.

Part of the reason why is because the council has effectively been gagged on some key issues. Margo Kingston reported in The Sydney Morning Herald on February 25, 1999 "It is understood Mr Perrin [Howard’s social policy adviser] said it was pointless for the council to give the Government advice that it should allow a heroin trial, and that the Government did not want members to make statements supporting one".

In the same report Kingston quoted a council member, Professor Hamilton, as saying the council would like to have input to what was to be the Prime Minister’s court-diversion proposal, to be put to the Premiers’ Conference. But she said that since Howard set up the council to advise him on drugs policy in March the previous year he had not sought the advice of the council on any drugs issue.

Last year Howard’s office reworked a household leaflet prepared by the council to better reflect the government’s ideology. The council persuaded the PM’s office to withdraw some of its changes, but the leaflet has still not been issued.

More recently the council had the temerity to advise the Prime Minister that he should place an additional levy on alcohol to be used for treatment of alcohol-related problems. The rejection from the PM was swift.

The government does not accept evidence as a basis for drug policy. In such an environment it is hard to see how the ANCD can ever be effective.

The PM has given an appearance of action and has set up a policy advisory body that he can control and which will not trouble him with vexed suggestions.

Even if the council does give him advice he knows that he can ignore it with impunity.

With an election looming and a third term of office as the coveted prize, drugs and his inability to even dent the rising rate of overdose deaths would be the last thing the PM would want raised as an election issue. The question of whether he will change the composition of the council or follow his chairman’s suggestion and "question both its value and continuance" is almost rhetorical. He will do whatever he considers necessary to put a lid on this issue.

Brian McConnell is president of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.

Article published in The Canberra Times Friday February 16 2001