Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Lost vision in drought of heroin

Its time to move the focus in drug policy from law enforcement to health, says Brian McConnell

Heroin supply in Australia has almost dried up. For years this is exactly what law enforcement has been trying to achieve. The underlying assumption is that when supplies are cut off there will be no drug problem. The solution to the drug problem should therefore be in sight – but is it?

Christmas 2000 saw the start of the supply of heroin drying up. This came close on the heels of reports saying that heroin was cheaper and more available, and a report that heroin overdoses had reached a record level of 958 deaths in 1999.

This drought caught everyone napping. No Customs Minister shouted: "We have stopped the supply of heroin!" Police and Customs were initially slow to claim credit but are now playing catch-up as claims dribble out to the media. They probably do not believe the rhetoric but they must play the game to ensure continued funding levels.

Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, does not believe that law enforcement is the cause of the heroin drought. He referred to his major study that looked at seizures of heroin by police over a long period and concluded that law enforcement had no effect on the price, purity or availability of heroin.

If law enforcement was responsible for the heroin drought one would expect heroin seizures to have continued after December. Media statements from law enforcement agencies report hardly any seizures since early November.

Extreme weather, resulting in severe flooding in Australia's heroin supply area, the Golden Triangle – an area in Asia which includes parts of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Laos, is the most plausible cause. We should not fool ourselves that we have seen the last of heroin. If the profit margin is sufficient, heroin will find its way back. And when supplies return, a high proportion of users will relapse and, because of reduced tolerance, could overdose and die.

Supply reduction of heroin has been the corner stone of Australia's prohibition drug policy. Governments have given proportionally more funding to law enforcement just to achieve this end.

Why then is there no celebration of achievement? It is probably because the drought was so unexpected and will be only temporary.

The gap left by the heroin drought is quickly being filled in other ways. Some drug users are seeking treatment, but the number of treatment places and range of treatment options across Australia are inadequate. Other drug users are turning to alternatives, such as benzodiazepines, awaiting heroin’s return.

Peter Clack also reported on the emergence of a cocaine market, warning: "Cocaine is blamed for much of the backdrop of gun-related urban gang violence and social disorder in the United States". ("Trendy cocaine follows in evil tracks of heroin", CT 11 Feb 2001)

Most burglaries are drug related, and police believe the recent spate is due to reduced supply and increasing price of heroin. There are now reports of increasing gang violence - perhaps these too are drug related too as rival gangs battle for shares of the diminishing heroin market and emerging cocaine market.

The supply reduction of heroin, has not been the victory hoped for. By eliminating one drug we are only allowing a market for another, more problematic drug. There has been no noticeable change in drug use, simply a shift to other drugs accompanied by an increase in drug related crime and violence.


We can no longer believe that supply control will solve our drug problem. We need to rethink our drug policies. It is time to move the focus from law enforcement to health, using evidence as a base for shifting that focus.

So far Australia has only given lip service to harm minimisation. Whenever a harm-minimisation strategy has been proposed, such as the ACT Heroin Trial or supervised injecting rooms that strategy has been blocked by prevailing mindsets.