Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Winning the headlines but losing the war

John Howard might take comfort from the current heroin drought, argues Brian McConnell, but things are different on the streets.

Published in the Canberra Times 8/4/2002.

Australia’s heroin drought is unique. No other country in the world is experiencing a shortage of heroin.

The Federal Government claims credit for the drought, stating that the law enforcement effort funded by the Tough on Drugs Strategy has been responsible. Large seizures of heroin are pointed to as proof.

Not unlike claims of the United Nations Drug Control Program which, in 1998, applauded reduction efforts of opium but which it said a year later was "largely as a result of extreme weather conditions in some major producer countries in South-West and South-East Asia". (UNDCP report, 1999).

Weather in Australia’s heroin supply area may also have been a major factor. There was major flooding followed by severe frosts in the Burma region during the 2000 growing season.

Seizures of drugs at our border, no matter what the quantity, represent only a small portion of drugs arriving in our country. The national Crime Authority advised that heroin seizures amounted to only 12 percent - hardly enough to cause a severe supply shortage. Seizure amounts are indicators of the quantity on our streets, ie, for every 12kg seized, 88kg reached the streets.

The effect of the drought on the drug scene has been mixed. On the positive side, heroin overdoses and overdose deaths, which started to trend down before the shortage impacted, plummeted even further. Some users sought treatment. All are welcome outcomes.

Others continued with heroin and paid the higher price of the reduced supply. Others switched to alternate drugs, such as methamphetamine (speed) and cocaine to fill the void.

These drugs come with their own problems. Treatment of users is more difficult and their use is often associated with violence.

Crime has increased along with heroin prices, and, alarmingly, violent crime is a large part of that increase. The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research recently reported a 34 per cent increase in "steal from person".

The positive reduction in heroin overdoses has been counterbalanced by increases in quantity and variety of other drugs, increases in violent crimes, increases in profits to organised crime and perhaps giving it a stronger grip on the drug market. On balance, one would have to question whether there has been a net gain for society. The drug problem has not been solved by the reduced supply of only one drug. We now have different problems and some would argue, a worse problem for society.

But what of the heroin trial raised by Chief Minister Stanhope last week and again rejected by Prime Minister John Howard? Some will argue that the shortage of heroin means that such a trial is unnecessary.

This could not be further from the truth. Firstly there are signs of heroin’s return. Secondly the provision of heroin on prescription would cause some users to change back to heroin and effective treatment from the more aggressive drugs. And thirdly there has never been a drug policy option that shows such promise of reducing crime (as has been done in Switzerland and the Netherlands) and undermining the black market.

The heroin trial has been nipping at Howard’s heels since he personally vetoed it in 1997. His refusal to consider a heroin trial, clinging desperately to his claim that "it will send the wrong message", is obstinate and contrary to evidence. It ignores the support of more than 60 experts and peak bodies and the benefits for the community through reduced crime.

How a government treats the most marginalised in the community is a mark of its compassion. But compassion, like heroin, seems to be in short supply.