Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Heroin Crisis - A book review

Edited by Kate van den Boogert and Nadine Davidoff. Bookman Press. pp.210. $16.95.

Reviewer: Geoff Page

Although the best research we have indicates that only 4% of Australia's population have tried heroin and only 2% use it regularly the substance quite reasonably looms much larger in our national consciousness than such percentages might suggest. For lay readers, Heroin Crisis, a new collection of essays by experts in the field, will give us most, if not all, of what we ever needed (or wanted) to know about the present debate on the best ways to deal with the drug's impact on users and on society generally.

The editors, who self-effacingly don't mention themselves except in the cataloguing information, have commissioned an impressive range of views - all the way from those of a current addict through to the 'just say no' approach of Salvation Army Major Brian Watters, Chairman of the Australian National Council on Drugs. All the articles, in their different ways, are highly informative and a few (for example, that by Reverend Tim Costello) are quite moving. Most memorable perhaps is the steady, sensible message coming from medicos such as Professor David Penington and Dr Alex Wodak arguing that the so-called 'war on drugs' needs to be replaced by a more complex approach which includes, as Penington says, 'the provision of heroin under supervision, at cost, to heavily dependent users'.

Of equal interest, too, are the articles presenting both sides of the methadone vs. naltrexone controversy. Dr Deorge O'Neil from Western Australia. argues strongly that naltrexone is a highly effective treatment, much more so than MMT (methadone maintenance treatment) which he says merely substitutes one addiction for another. On the other hand, Drs Andrew Byrne and Robert Newman illustrate, the many pluses of MMT from their own couple of decades' experience. Similarly Professor Greg Whe!an and Dr Alan Gijsbers argue that the case for naltrexone is far from demonstrated scientifically at this stage.

On a less academic but more human level the articles by heroin addict (Jason van den Boogert), mother of an ex-user (Imogen Clark), street kid worker (Nathan Stirling) and inner-city clergyman (Tim Costello) all emphasise that these are real people the scientists are talking about, not just statistics for bureaucrats or rhetorical figures for politicians -- though it must be conceded that the politicians' contributions here {Barry Jones’ introduction and Kate Carnell's article on her governments initiatives in the A.C.T.) are well above average for the category. Since it is aimed at the lay rather than scholarly reader the book understandably has not bothered with an index, footnotes or bibliography - - which means unfortunately, that the flurry of statistical claims and counter-claims is difficult to check. For the scores of thousands who have experienced the impact of illicit heroin (all the way from bereaved parents through to those who’ve had their VCR’s stolen) Heroin Crisis is a useful, if not mandatory, book. It should also make a considerable contribution towards creating the climate in which sensible drug law reform in this country can begin to occur.