Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Enlightened minds needed to solve the drugs dilemma

by Bill Bush
Published in the Canberra Times 10 June 2003

Bill Bush says the highly charged moral and political atmosphere surrounding drugs challenges the choice of the best interventions. Drugs constitute the greatest social issue facing the nation. This is the verdict of Peter Costello, the thwarted Liberal leader  in the Press last week. They are "every parent's nightmare", he added. In contrast, the ACT Police believe that "the scoreboard is starting to show some runs" (The Canberra Times, May 24). There's nothing like a few big seizures to buoy spirits.
Police and aspiring political leaders need the optimism of Charles Dickens's Micawber. Every day dawns with the hope that something will turn up: the promise of every new law enforcement initiative. Back in 1980 the Williams Royal Commission thought that a "much better result can be obtained if Australia mobilises its resources and adopts a truly national policy against illegal drugs". Williams described the drug problem then as containing "many elements of war time situation". Since then it has got many times worse.
Other royal commissions then were sceptical of the extent that legal sanctions could deter drug traffickers. For example, Costigan QC shared the view that the elimination of non-medical drug use "would require a degree of surveillance of private behaviour that simply cannot be achieved in a democratic society". Even so, law enforcement has continued to underpin illicit drug policy.

In the meantime, out of concern that law enforcement itself was creating serious health and social problems, Australian governments superimposed a policy of harm minimisation on policing.
There is a tension between these approaches which is evident from Police comments. "We generally don't target the heroin user," they say. "We're more interested in the trafficker." Fine, but users make up most of the lower levels of the distribution pyramid. They refer to the welcome "new found emphasis on diverting individuals away from the legal system and into the health system" but add that "four out of every five burglaries in Canberra raise funds for a heroin user".
Non-attendance of police at overdoses saves lives. The provision of clean syringes reduces the spread of blood-borne diseases and the level of property crime is reduced among those on methadone programs. At the same time, by obtaining and possessing illicit drugs every user commits a crime.
This is why for some "harm minimisation" is a dirty term. The Prime Minister on 2UE has said he does not believe in it. Bronwyn Bishop, heading an inquiry into crime, has declared that "our policy is no longer harm minimisation". The Government has called for its reconsideration in the current review of the National Drug Strategic Framework.
My GP repeated to me that life itself is a fatal condition. Every time we go to the doctor we are seeking to minimise harm. The concept underpins traffic regulation and much else in life.
For harm minimisation to be a guide two things must be clear: what is harmful and what interventions can minimise that harm. The first is a moral question. The second is an issue of cause and effect that often involves expert knowledge.
In the eyes of some, being drug free is a virtue that should be placed in front of preserving life. Recently in sentencing an addicted woman on a prostitution charge, an Adelaide magistrate told her: "damn you to death". The federal minister, Tony Abbot, has said that he opposes injecting facilities because people who are on drugs are virtually dead anyway.
Much more common is a moral code that sees overcoming the harm of addiction as only one of a number of harms associated with drug use that we should address: the health and social functioning of users should be improved, our young children should not be exposed to dangerous drugs, none should have to live in fear of crime and so on.
The highly charged moral and political atmosphere surrounding drugs challenges the inherently difficult process of determining what interventions will best achieve the desired mix of objectives. As Socrates found out, inquiring scepticism is no match for blind, populist conviction.
In the absence of certainty, which is scarce in the social sciences, the heads of research institutes, dependent on governments for funding, will think twice about the consequences of advocating some policies. Eighty per cent confidence may be good enough in business and for most other decisions but not, it seems, when it comes to something like the medical prescription of heroin.
Police optimism from big drug seizures has no foundation in the absence of estimates of the size of the Australian drug market. Without this knowledge the increased seizures could just as well indicate that the market is growing. Most businesses will compensate for losses in transit by increasing delivery quantities. Drug drug traffickers do the same.
It is an irony that the boundaries of drug policy are set by the Federal Government yet it is the state and local governments that have to pick up most of the pieces in public health and law and order budgets. An economic study issued earlier this year reported the annual costs of selected drug-attributable crime as $3billion.
There is challenging evidence of successful interventions that can reduce crime rates by 70% or more among those we presently warehouse in prison (each at some $70,000 per year), that will slash public nuisance and help rebuild community where there is now splintering. I am not just referring to the experience of heroin prescription in four countries but there's a particular need to see through the fear surrounding that drug.
Costello has declared he was ready to tackle the most pressing social issue of drugs. It is imperative that all political leaders be open to enlightenment. Unless they are we could be heading away from the objectives we seek. We must use both our heads and our hearts.

Bill Bush is a member of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.