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Cries of futility
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Cries of futility in dead ends of drug policy

By Neil Lade
Published in the Canberra Times 22 October 2006

Lost in an empty ring, going round in circles. Where words drift into nothing and there's no escape from deja vu. Just blinding stupor in a tunnel of darkness. And deep behind dark glasses no one can see my tears.

It's another time of year when futility struggles with reality. When I'm drawn somewhat reluctantly to Weston Park in Yarralumla - and wounds gape again. It's last Monday, and I'm back for the ACT Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform's 11th Annual Remembrance Ceremony for those who lose their life to illicit drugs.

It's surreal - tranquil, slightly disconnected. People of all ages, slightly drooped. Kids, and a detached dog, wandering in and out.

VIPs standing stiffly in dark blue suits. Blossom flecks from the locust tree floating like snow flakes in the breeze.

This is the seventh ceremony since my elder daughter Mel died from a heroin overdose in 1999. Her casual use was just a small part of who she was. It was a false solace when the black dog chased. She could light up a room, a stage, any space - and she could plunge them all into darkness. She tried so hard not to use, but it's not so simple - despite what fearless leaders and sanctimonious tough-on-drugs protagonists say. It's so easy to preach from ivory towers of intransigence, mired in narrow views. Just say no, and it all goes away. But it hasn't. It's been sidelined, but it thrives in hell.

Keynote speaker Tony Trimingham illustrates this all too clearly. He's the founder and head of Family Drug Support, which, among other things, offers a seven-day, 24-hour-help phone line Australia-wide (1300 368 186). Tony's son Damien died of  a heroin overdose in 1997, and he talks about the hole that's still there. That's when I start crying. I know that hole. He talks also about modern perceptions. He rang a Sydney newspaper recently and one of the big-wigs said, ``But heroin's not an issue any more.'' But it is, of course. And drug abuse in general. The frightening death tolls of 900-plus in the late '90s have gone, but Tony says the death toll is still about 300 a year.

Suddenly I'm back to where I've been before. Over and over again. In head-banging, mind-numbingly obvious. That nothing has really changed. No one likes what addicts do - especially if you're a victim of attack, break-in or theft. But perhaps things would be better if they were in the health rather than the criminal system. Ruled by sanity rather than morality where the mindset of abstinence rules.

By the time I refocus, another speaker is in mid-stream.  Australian Democrats leader Lyn Allison says that ``a criminal justice approach to drug policy does not work''.

So says all of me. But her words float in dead-end directions. And when Catholic Bishop Pat Power says, ``Don't lose hope,'' I just say, ``No.'' Though it does seem hopeless when he reads out  170 names of people who have died in their own wars against drugs. When he calls out "Melanie Van Den Heuvel, aged 22, 1999'', all I can do is cry.