Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Prism of political correctness still distorting drugs issue

by Bill Bush
Published in the Canberra Times today, Wednesday, November 9, 2005

If drug addiction is best understood as a psychological problem than a lifestyle issue, why do we continue to treat drug abuse primarily in a criminal law rather than primarily in a health context?

Senator Gary Humphries asked this question on Monday at the 10th remembrance ceremony for those who have lost their lives to illicit drugs. It was the question family members asked at the meeting in 1995 which founded Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.

It was new for parents to recognise that the criminal law contributed to the overdose death of their children. Contradicting the expectation that parents wanted tougher laws opened political ears, but politics have changed.

In 1995 Liberal leadership in the ACT and Victoria was serious about change. The Carnell Government proposed a heroin trial. In Victoria, Jeff Kennett's Drug Advisory Council under Professor Penington supported the heroin trial and decriminalisation of cannabis. The high water mark of reform was probably the interministerial agreement of July 1997 to support the ACT's trial. Within three weeks Prime Minister Howard backtracked and vetoed it.

In the ACT and Victoria, where there had been leadership, polls showed majorities in favour of change. Ironically, the election of the Bracks Government in Victoria in 1999 stands as the strongest affirmation that drug reform is not an electoral liability. Labor's promise of five injecting rooms was a key issue, Kennett having by then retreated from his forward position.

Initiatives of the 1990s failed to move drug policy from a law enforcement to a thoroughly public health approach. Even so, the elements of harm minimisation that Australian governments had introduced from the mid-1980s, have remained and even grown: sterile syringes, buprenorphine as well as methadone as substitution therapies.

All governments, including the Commonwealth, have committed themselves to a continuation of "harm minimisation" in the National Drug Strategy for 2004-2009. Indeed, the Commonwealth has strongly supported diversion schemes which acknowledge the harmful effect that enforcement of the criminal law can have.

Even so, the Commonwealth's "Tough on Drugs" approach, adopted following the rejection of the heroin trial, added ambivalence to "harm minimisation". Its three arms of "supply reduction", “demand reduction” and “harm reduction" allow agencies to do their own thing with a minimum of coordination.

"Harm minimisation" is also being attacked. John Howard says he does not believe in it, and last month he announced a $600,000 grant to Drug Free Australia "to continue their work in uniting individuals, organisations and government representative bodies to advocate abstinence-based approaches to drug issues". This is code for opposition to any drug policy that fails to give pre-eminence to abstinence.

This ethical point is at the heart of the drug debate. Is it right to place abstinence before measures that will keep addicted people alive and stabilise their lives?

The disagreement is not about the desirability of abstinence but that that goal should not marginalise people and endanger their health and lives.

Inevitably this places religion at the centre of the drug debate. [This is reflected in the Uniting Church stepping forward to sponsor the Kings Cross medically supervised injecting room after the Vatican ordered the Sisters of Mercy not to do so. Before the last federal election, the Australian Christian Lobby identified “reject heroin trials and drug injecting rooms” as a “Christian value” against which the parties should be judged.]* There is nothing in Christian texts that supports singling out some addictions to the harsh treatment of the criminal law.

Illicit drugs are implicated in Australia's most serious social problems, from mental health to child protection and poverty. Since 1995, the average daily occupancy of Belconnen Remand Centre has grown by over 100 per cent to accommodate drug problems. The ACT Government is spending many millions to build a large prison for the same reason. ACT deaths were 17 in 2003, as high as they ever have been.

The research community quietly supports harm minimisation, for which there is strong evidence of effectiveness, but a vocal defence of it cannot be expected from them. There is greater reluctance now than there was 10 years ago to speculate on the policy implications of research. This is because of the political sensitivity and reliance on governments to fund research.

Those who gathered 10 years ago were prepared to challenge political correctness. The need is even greater now.

Bill Bush is a member of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.

* Words omitted from published text for lack of space.