Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Present policy on drugs is the right one

Response by Senator Chris Ellison to Winning the headlines but losing the war (published on 16 April 2002).

Critique by Brian McConnell - paragraphs of Senator Ellison's letter have been numbered for easy reference.

  1. Brian O’Connell in "Winning the headlines but losing the war" (CT, April 8, p.11) is quite right: Australia’s heroin drought is unique. However, his assertion that the Government’s successful reduction of illicit drugs hitting our streets is creating "worse problems" is wrong.
  2. It is only in an environment of reduced supply that we can successfully treat addicts and educate young Australians against the dangers of drugs.
  3. In carefully laying the ground to support his argument, Mr O’Connell paid only lip service to the positive effects of the record funds the Howard Government has invested in protecting Australians from the scourge of illicit-drug use.
  4. Since the "tough on drugs" strategy we launched in 1997, almost six tonnes of illicit drugs, including heroin, ecstacy, cocaine and amphetamines, have been seized, compared to 2.5 tonnes in the preceding five years. Central to any successful anti-drugs policy is a strong and definitive message from government that it will not tolerate the abuse and use of drugs.
  5. More importantly, Mr O’Connell ignores the hundreds of Australian lives being saved each year by current strategies.
  6. Heroin-overdose deaths among 15- to 44-year-olds decreased from 958 in 1999 to 725 in 2000. Early indications for 2001 are that an even greater reduction in heroin-overdose deaths has occurred, with Victorian figures indicating there were 49 deaths from heroin overdose in 2001, compared to 331 in 2000 – an 85 percent reduction.
  7. There have also been improvements in access to treatment, with a census of drug treatment services showing an increase in the proportion of people in treatment for drug and alcohol problems since 1995.
  8. The 2001 National Illicit Drugs Campaign, which encouraged parents to talk to their children about drugs, found that 49 per cent of young 5- to 17-year-olds stated that the campaign had made it easier to talk to their parents about drugs.
  9. Support for prescription heroin trials provides for an inadequate and counterproductive response to what should be our ultimate goal – to rid our young people of the life-destroying dangers and temptations presented by the availability of drugs in our neighbourhoods.

(Senator) Chris Ellison
Minister for Justice
And Customs


Para 1: Writer’s name is wrong.

Para 2: This is illogical. Treatment and education are not dependent on reduced supply.

Para 3: The effect of the Tough on Drugs Strategy has been evaluated a number of times and there has been little to show that it has been effective. It is not a matter of how much money is thrown at the problem; it is how effective that money has been used. The test is of how many lives have been saved that can be directly attributed to the money spent and/or the reduction in drug use that can be attributed.

Para 4: He has not addressed the issue of what proportion this 6 tonnes represents and he shows seizures increasing over time when drug availability also increased over that time. That is the seizures may be a constant percentage of the amount coming into Australia and because more is coming in more is seized. It could be put in context by assuming (based on National Crime Authority estimates) that it represents about 12 per cent of the drugs reaching the street. Thus in the time that 6 tonnes were seized 50 tonnes could have reached the street. The growth in seizures most likely represents the growth in drugs reaching the street. The Government needs to investigate this.

Para 5 & 6: The reduction in overdoses was acknowledged and welcomed. But whether this reduction is attributable to the TOD strategy is questionable and requires investigation.

Para 7: The increase in people in treatment could also reflect the increased number of addicts and thus the increased demand for treatment. Again more research is needed.

Para 8: The surveying of children as young as 5 is a curious inclusion. Statistics for ages 12 to 17 would be more informative. It was a very expensive campaign which went to every household just to make it easier for 5-17 year olds to talk about drugs with their parents. The result of the survey after the advertising campaign in the senator’s letter only quotes 5-17 year olds. No results from parents was included in the letter – what did they say? The critical question to ask is "did it reduce or delay uptake of drug use?"

Para 9: Support for a heroin trial is an evidence-based approach which the Minister does not appear to subscribe to. The reasons for conducting a heroin trial have been spelled out but ignored. The support of more than 60 experts and peak bodies has also been ignored by the government.

The letter is not convincing that the TOD Strategy has done much to rid Australia of the drugs in our neighbourhoods.

There are many concerns unanswered in this letter: What of the increase in amphetamines? What of the control of the drug market by organised crime, an issue the National Crime Authority thought so serious in its 2000 Commentary? What of the violent crime increase and increase in use of hand guns for those crimes?