and Friends for Drug Law Reform
to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use
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
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
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
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