Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

One policy Australia cannot afford to abandon

by Brian McConnell, President for Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.

Prime Minister Howard is opposed to it. Bronwyn Bishop says that it is dead. Bureaucrats have tried to define it away. Philip Emafo, President of the International Narcotics Control Board says it is a distraction from ridding the world of drugs.

But harm minimisation is far from dead. It is part of everyday life. For example we have road rules to reduce the harm from motor vehicles (ie drive on the left, driver licensing, seatbelts), helmets for cyclists, safety education in the home, temperature limiters to prevent scalding, etc.

In everyday life harm minimisation is commonsense and automatically accepted but when related to illicit drugs it draws strong opposition.

Australia’s illicit drug policy is founded on prohibition, ie imposing strong criminal penalties for use, possession, selling and manufacture of drugs. Prohibition policies emerged in the 1930s through international pressure and continue today. Harm minimisation was introduced into Australia (and possibly conceived by Australia) much later in 1985 in an attempt to limit the spread of blood born viruses by issuing clean syringes to injecting drug users. By and large harm minimisation has been an attempt to ameliorate the harsh effects of prohibition.

Some argue that the introduction of the harm minimisation practice of issuing clean syringes has promoted drug use. But the facts show this not to be true. For example statistics show a steady exponential upward trend for overdose deaths from 1979 to 1999 – on average doubling about every 5.8 years. That upward trend has been unaffected by any policy introduced during that time, including harm minimisation. (Noting of course the reduction in deaths since 1999 caused by a shortage of heroin which was caused by ...– but that is another issue and something for a different discussion.)

Meanwhile Australia can boast one of the lowest HIV infection rates because of its needle and syringe program (NSP). A recent report commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing said: "In cities that had ever had NSPs, there had been an average annual decrease in HIV prevalence of 18.6%, compared with an average annual increase of 8.1% in cities without such programs." (My emphasis.)

There are many harms caused by drug use. Some are directly related to the drugs themselves and others are from attempts to stop their use. Identifying harms in these two groups spotlights implications for drug policies.

The intrinsic harms of the drugs include addiction, overdose, the long and short term effects on the brain and body, family disintegration and so on.

Harms caused by prohibition laws include the lack of quality control (because the black market is unregulated) contributing to overdose or to consequential health problems, using in risky locations, risky methods of use, transmission of blood born viruses, high drug price leaving little money for food and shelter and leading to financial ruin, imposition of criminal records which affect users’ future. There are also harms to society such as crime and corruption, diversion of resources away from health and welfare to law enforcement, family disintegration and so on.

The prejudicial effects of prohibition are even more insidious. Judge Judy when visiting Australia advocated handing out dirty syringes to infect and kill drug users. Major Watters, Chairman of the Australian National Council on Drugs wants to lock up the drug addicted until they are cured: "It's surprising what a wake-up it is when the cell door clangs shut. It's a great motivation," he said in February 1999. Overseas, death squads in Thailand (thought to comprise Thai police but denied by that government) have so far murdered over 1,400 suspected drug traffickers which the United Nations Drug Control representative in that country appears to condone. Talk-back-radio callers want the same to apply in Australia. Despite what one thinks about drug dealers, the rule of law, should prevail.

So far Prime Minister Howard’s "Tough on Drugs Strategy" has not adopted any of these extreme approaches. Although it did have a brief flirtation with zero tolerance in schools - and some schools, with government applauding from the sideline, expelled children caught with illegal drugs.

About one third of all current school children have tried cannabis. Thus "zero tolerance" in schools could have meant about 400,000 Australian children separated from a vital tie with their community, under-educated, unemployable, and with a great deal of time on their hands. Fortunately that heavy handed aspect of the ‘zero tolerance’ in schools policy has been withdrawn.

Prohibition policies are counter-productive. Prohibition of drugs created the black market. Its enormous profits now drive the drug market and promote drug use. The lack of past success in stopping this black market suggests that it is beyond the ability of governments to control.

Any progress made in finding better ways of dealing with drug problems has not been by additional prohibition measures but by harm minimisation strategies. Harm minimisation is a philosophy that is protecting all Australians from the excesses of prohibition policies. It is one which Australia cannot afford to abandon nor to allow to be removed by stealth.