Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

No silver bullet for drug abuse

Advocates of zero tolerance ignore its side effects says Brian McConnell

Published in The Canberra Times 24 September 2004

 Debate about drugs is often a confused mixture of unsubstantiated claims, misinformation, and some facts.
Angela Shanahan’s article last week “No-one is an island in the fight against drugs” (CT September 18, p B5) is no exception, claiming that Canberra has Australia’s highest level of drug use. She recommends supplanting harm minimisation with absolute zero tolerance as adopted by Sweden and New York to drastically reduce drug use and crime.
Yes, Canberra has a drug problem, but it is on a par with the rest of Australia. The 2001 Household Survey stated 18.1 percent of the ACT population recently used illicit drugs (mainly cannabis) compared to Australia’s 16.9 per cent.
Sweden despite its policy of “a drug free society” states Henrik Tham, Professor of Criminology at Stockholm University “has clearly not been achieved. Quite the reverse; by comparison with the period when this goal was formulated, the available indicators show that drug consumption has increased. This increase in the use and abuse of drugs has taken place in spite of a substantial expansion in control measures.”
Equally disturbing is that those like Tham, who question Swedish drug policy, are counted among the ‘forces of evil’, a position that is becoming familiar in Australia.
Zero tolerance in New York has not solved its crime problem. In 2000 the crime rate per 100,000 of population was 3099, about the same as for 1965. The rise and fall pattern during that period is the same pattern as nearby New Jersey and some other states. Thus events in New York are not unique to that state nor its policies.
New York's zero tolerance has had many innocent victims. As a result of no needle and syringe programs (NSP), by 1996 New York City had reported 17,000 pediatric AIDS cases. NSW, with approximately the same population, had experienced 42. (Wodak & Penny, 19/8/1997).

 The USA pays a high cost for zero tolerance with the world’s highest imprisonment rate diverting resources away from hospitals and schools.
Regulation, instead of prohibition has demonstrated some successes. For example, Switzerland’s heroin prescription showed inter alia substantial reductions in drug related deaths and crime. The Netherlands with its regulated coffee shops, has an enviably low cannabis usage.
Proponents for zero tolerance rarely identify how they would accomplish their goals nor the consequences. For the ACT this would mean:

§        No NSP

§        No pharmacotherapy maintenance programs eg methadone maintenance

§        Seeking to jail or send to compulsory treatment all ACT drug users (there are about 54,000 in the ACT)

§        Stopping any advice resembling harm minimisation because it might send the wrong message or promote drug use

§        Expelling children from school if caught with drugs.

 The consequences would be serious. A major increase in blood borne viruses and increased health budget costs would result without an NSP. 

Increased arrests and incarceration, whether in prison or rehabilitation centres would add substantially to taxpayers’ burdens with few effective outcomes.
Lack of harm minimisation advice would cost lives, perhaps like the young Sydney girl who used ecstasy but died because friends did not know what to do and were too frightened to call for help when she got into trouble.

 And some schools in Sydney, urged on by the Howard Government’s zero tolerance in schools policy, did actually expel students for drug possession – leaving them excluded from their community and shoved into life undereducated.
Absolute zero tolerance is neither sensible nor affordable, and if Sweden and New York are accurate examples, would not leave the ACT a “drug free island”. Adoption of a policy that deliberately targets 18 percent of the population to be jailed or abandoned to serious disease or death is unthinkable.
Why should harm minimisation, a principle applied across all other human endeavors, be excluded from illicit drugs?

  Perhaps such draconian means are intended to eliminate all drug users because, like the 15th century Inquisitions, it will make our society better? 

 The side effects of a policy of zero tolerance would be far worse than it purport to cure, but fails.