Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Rhetoric won't halt deaths
by Neil Lade (first published in The Canberra Times, 15 August 2000)

A caring society has a responsibility to look after people, even when they make mistakes. Reality, and not personal morality, must guide the heroin debate, says NEIL LADE.

WHEN it comes to the heroin debate, hypocrisy, insensitivity and narrow-mindedness seem to rule.

It appears the country is lost in an endless cycle of rhetoric. And while everyone talks, a lot of people most of them young have died and are dying. More than 700 people in Australia died from heroin overdoses last year a similar figure to the previous year and it appears it will be just as high if not higher this year.

The moral crusaders, the prohibitionists and many of the so-called leaders of this country remain fixed and blinkered in a crusade for a drug-free society. Abstinence is the only real an swer: just say no and the problem will go away. Get tough on drugs. After all, these people made the choice to take heroin.

The notion of a fair go was once a driving passion and force in this country; now it seems more like an empty catch-cry used selectively to justify dubious causes.

The nation that once was a caring, intelligent and creative society with a history of independent and original thought, and an ability to solve seemingly insurmountable problems by doing things differently is not the country I'm living in at the moment.

Meanwhile, heroin users keep dying in alarming and increasing numbers of heroin users are dying. Three more people died from heroin overdoses in the ACT recently and it's a deepening, ever-present reality in all parts of Australia.

One city where the dismal reality is more obvious than most is Melbourne. because The Herald-Sun newspaper publishes the number of deaths each day at the bottom of its editorial ­ therešs a column for road deaths and one for heroin deaths.

Last year, according to the Herald-Sun, there were 324 heroin deaths in Victoria compared with the road toll of 376. According to the paper's figures on Saturday, August 12, the toll so far this year is 194 heroin deaths and 249 road deaths. It is a huge waste of life. On top of this are all the people who survive near death and continue to live on the edge of death in a society that doesn't seem to care because they're just drug addicts who should say "No".

And a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald suggests that the mean-spirited attitudes and simplistic drug-policy directions are becoming more entrenched.

According to the report, a Federal Government drug-information booklet, titled Our Strongest Weapon Against Drugs Families, has been rewritten by a senior member of Prime Minister John Howard's staff. The booklet, designed for parents, was to have been mailed to than a million households in July as part of the Government's anti- drug campaign, but was withdrawn because it was not tough enough.

The rewritten booklet now includes new statistics and information, which health sources describe as unscientific, such as the statement that "studies overseas reveal that young people from families who eat together at least fives times a week are less likely to be involved with drugs".

Howard's words on drugs echoed by (or echoes of) the Salvation Army's Major Brian Watters (his disciple or driving influence) have been far from enlightening. Deep in their ivory towers, their stance and statements cut deeply. The policy they promote exacerbates the problem of drug use and abuse, and plays a huge part in fuelling the crime and health crisis associated with heroin. The amoral "business" people in the criminal empires controlling heroin supply must be smirking all the way to the bank.

As a parent, there is only one real question to answer if your child is using heroin. Do you want her or him to be alive or dead? It is easy to answer even when the circumstances are often so very hard. Life wins always even when the desperation is extreme. After all, you can't rehabilitate a dead addict.

This is a choice I do not have any more my daughter, Mel, died from a heroin overdose in March last year. She would have been 23 in June this year. She was an extraordinary young woman who tried so hard to stay alive, but there was just too much against her.

It's hard to be angry because it's self destructive and will achieve very little. But I am immensely impatient with and frustrated at our leaders and their lack of a concerted, realistic and immediate response to heroin use and abuse.

People ­ especially young people ­ make mistakes in their lives. They should not be condemned to death or a precarious life for a habit beyond their control ­ especially when society continues to fail them.

Yes, many addicts do commit crimes to support their habits because they are out of control and need the drug so badly ­ addciation is not a nice thing that conforms to rules.

Crime needs to be dealt with but law enforcement by itself will not solve things. Realistic responses to what is basically a social and health problem are wickedly overdue.

It is too easy to deal in stereotypes ­ heroin users often are lumped into a convenient sameness and the shades of grey become black and white. There are common features, but users are individuals with individual needs and problems that require a range of suitable solutions.

There is no one magical cure for people to stop using heroin and no one approach or treatment. Perhaps, there is no cure in the sense that everyone will abstain forever.

To break the cycle of use and abuse, radical steps and responses are needed that will cater for individual cases and which can lead to negating the criminal networks that have no morals and are prepared to take risks because the profits are so huge.

Just before Mel died, I began writ ing a letter to John Howard, and his wife, Janette, in an attempt to present a more personal perspective on heroin addiction. It was not something I wanted to do ­ opening up a private matter to a wider audience is fraught with all sorts of misgivings and dangers. It invades the personal spaces of all concerned and especially the rest of my family. But it was something I thought I needed to do.

Mel died before I could send the letter. I didn't know what to do ­ everything seemed kind of pointless. A very good friend nudged me to finish the letter and do something with it. It was just before the Premiers' conference and drug summit in Canberra on April 9 last year, and three days after Mel's funeral.

So I found myself writing a postscript to the letter and, just before the drug summit, the letters were delivered to Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beaz ley, the then Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, the Federal Minister for Health, Michael Wooldridge, and the ACT's Chief Minister, Kate Carnell. The letters were similarly worded. There have been positive responses from most of them kind words, sympathy and compassion.

I've sent similar letters to other leading Australian politicians ­ most have replied, some more compassionately and with greater vision and understanding than others.

On June 8 last year, my wife and I had a 45-minute meeting with Howard himself ­ he invited us to his office and he listened with compassion and sympathy, and there appeared to be a genuine concern for our plight and a willingness to understand.

In hindsight, more than a year later, it appears our hopes that our words and experiences could make a difference seem a little absurd. Howard and his advisers obviously know better ­ they listen to what they want to hear and continue to gather and manipulate "evidence" to justify their simplistic and narrow approaches.

We also met Beazley on the same day ­ he was also compassionate, sympathetic and understanding. He showed a willingness to attack the problem in a more realistic way.

But all the letters and words seem empty when nothing seems to change.

The heroin problem does not a have a simple solution but current policies based on law enforcement and zero tolerance are not working. A few big hauls of heroin make great headlines and police and politicians can applaud themselves about a job well done. But it hasn't stemmed the flow.

Yes, we do need to catch the criminals and stop the greedy immorality and profiteering from this seedy trade. Yes, we do need more effective education but based on reality not idealistic morality.

We also need much more.

We need to keep these people alive ­ in the hope that one day they can live without heroin or any other artificial crutch. It means introducing a whole range of measures, including: the heroin-injecting rooms; safe and therapeutically controlled doses for users (coupled with counselling); better programs and different treatments; and massive increases in the amount and types of counselling, education and rehabilitation services.

This is not an exhaustive list and many of the measures are unpalatable, but we need to start attacking attack this problem with more imagination. A caring society should look after its people ­ even if they make mistakes.

I hate heroin and everything about it. But I also hate the hypocrisy, the lack of vision and the never-ending cycle of talk while the carnage continues.

As Jeff Kennett said some time ago about seeking solutions to heroin: "I am not asking the Prime Minister to like it. I don't like it. We don't like it. I am asking him to consider that our responsibility now as leaders is to put the interests of the addict or the person in need before our own particular personal views."