Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Zero Tolerance in a Modern Community:
how to recognise the zealot

An address by Bill Bush of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform
at the Community Forum, "Society's Treatment of Drug Users"
Brunswick Street Mall Rotunda, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane
Thursday, 26 June 2003

"It's not a nice feeling when it's seven in the morning, you're already atrociously ill and you just know it'll be about nine at night before you manage to scam yourself a shot. Plus you know you don't get to just lie in bed and be sick for that 14 hours. No, you have to get up and walk and beg and walk and steal and walk and walk . . . unless you've got yourself a convenient chauffeur, then you may still have to wait 14 hours, but at least you'll be sitting comfortably in a car rather than trekking through rain, hail and snow."
A local Canberra politician objecting to injecting rooms asserted that "addicts" were beyond cleaning their own teeth. A columnist responded that whatever the case with teeth an "addict" had circumvented formidable barriers to rob his home.
Neri wrote the first paragraph I read. It is from a set of some of the funniest essays I have come across. I suspect Henry Lawson, another drug user, would have been proud to have called them his. They are full of grim, tenacious humour that can come only from profound self awareness.
Neri fought many battles with her habit. She was determined not to die from heroin. She chose death from carbon monoxide. Neri was 21.
All these quotations bear out that there are many contradictions in illicit drug use. There's much that seems to justify an attitude of zero tolerance. That being so, why is zero tolerance so misguided, so cruel and so counter-productive? In short why is it wrong?
It is important that we are clear about the things we can accept as well as the things on which we necessarily differ.
I would suggest that one thing on which we do not need to differ is the desirability of a drug free goal.
I can hear you drawing in your breath when I say this. There's not been one society in human history that has been drug free, not even, I'm told, Eskimo societies that were once thought to be so. It seems they consumed mind altering substances derived from fungi that grew in igloos.
But adhering to an ideal is not undermined by contrary practice. The fact that we are never likely to rid the world of cruelty, lying, stealing or killing does not make them right or justify us throwing in the towel to prevent them.
Now I suggest that there are many in the community including families and even users who would whole heartedly wish that we could be rid of some illicit drugs.
Equally, many associated with zero tolerance admit that their efforts will never be 100% successful.
Major Watters has told a federal parliamentary committee:
"There will always be some drug problem, just the same as there will be other social dysfunctions and crime occurrences. We are never going to eliminate them; we are never going to live in that utopia. That would be very nice but it is not going to happen."
Sweden has an official drug free policy yet its National Institute of Public Health concedes that:
"Sweden is not a completely drug-free society, but," it asserts, "the target has been achieved in that use of drugs in Sweden occurs on a limited scale by international standards."   
So no, you're not going to cut much ice with a zero tolerance advocate (or a lot of others) by showing that a drug free society is impossible. Turning the proposition around, zero tolerance is not a misguided, cruel and counter-productive approach to drug policy because those who hold to it aspire to a drug free society.
It is misguided, cruel and counter-productive for two different reasons. I call them moral absolutism and a dark ages dogmatism.
You cannot miss moral absolutism when you meet it. It was abroad here in Brisbane not so many years ago when U.S. television judge Judy Sheindlin told her lunch time audience at the Carlton Crest that the debate about needle supply to heroin addicts is an indulgence led by "liberal morons". "Give 'em dirty needles," she said, "and let 'em die." This year a magistrate in Adelaide in sentencing a woman on a prostitution charge told her:
"We dicks pay for your life. It's your choice to be a junkie and die in the gutter. No one gives a shit, but you're going to kill that woman who is your mother, damn you to death."
In Melbourne, Tony Abbot, the Federal Minister, was asked why he was opposed to supervised injecting facilities. He said that people who are on drugs are virtually dead anyway.
Crude language should not hide the fact that zero tolerance is compatible with much help to the user but there is a bottom line. It is that the user must overcome his or her addiction.
Moral absolutism when it comes to drugs sees becoming drug free as the pre-eminent moral aspiration. Those who hold to it go well beyond welcoming a drug free life as being the best way of fulfilling one's full potential. For them being drug free is more important than life itself.
Sacrifice often goes with this attitude - not self sacrifice but sacrifice of the addicted drug user for the greater good. Preparedness to sacrifice others lurks behind phrases such as "sends the wrong message". When he vetoed a heroin trial in Australia the Prime Minister stated that "we are concerned that a heroin trial sends an adverse signal".
Pushed to it, many opponents of such a trial or a trial of a medically supervised injecting room will concede that such a step may keep some users alive but reject it because  they believe those measures would encourage others to use. The interests of the "innocent" non-user is pitted against the interests of the addict.
There was a classic statement of this position within the past week by a contributor to ADCA's DrugTalk list. The subject was death rates among cohorts of heroin users in various European cities:
". . . Sweden's cohort," he wrote, "did indeed die sooner. But isn't this because [Sweden does] not have much in the way of harm minimisation and [thus just]what you might expect? And the reason they don't major in harm minimisation measures is because they believe that these measures only create more drug use via normalisation, and thus more deaths."
In drug wars as in other conflicts, unfortunate collateral casualties are to be expected. I may concede the possibility of circumstances that would justify such a sacrifice but not without the clearest evidence that there was no other acceptable course.
This brings me to "evidence". Someone who takes a position of moral absolutism on drugs is also likely to have a dark ages mentality towards "evidence". Judge Judy's reference to "liberal morons" suggests this.
I would suggest that the drug debate has little to do with left and right divides in the political spectrum. It has a lot to do with what causes what.
All of you have probably been struck with how debates about the "facts" of drug policies never seem to get very far. You might also note that the two sides tend to take a different approach . One may make a factual assertion. The other may reply that on the best evidence this does not seem right. She will cite the research literature to support her scepticism. Arguer One may then come back with an "I told you so. You don't have proof that I'm wrong". For a variation Arguer One may reply with a slightly different factual assertion that has Arguer Two scurrying back to the research literature to check it out. Alternatively Arguor One may riposte: "I know of a study that contradicts what you've told me". He gives no citation or indication that the outcome of the study was subject to peer review.
Now I'm no medical or epidemiological researcher but as someone trained as a lawyer I can recognise the difference between what lawyers do - argue a case - and a dispassionate scientific investigation of the truth.
Sceptical questioning is at the heart of science. The scientist should question everything, not just one side. In legal imagery she must combine the roles of judge and opposing counsel. The traditional peer review process has open minded scepticism at its heart.
So the scientist is not a good match for the dark ages dogmatist.
In the light of its dangers, a recent correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph in Sydney called for the abandonment of the NSW trial of medicinal use of cannabis unless the "AMA declare[s] publicly there are no legal drugs with equal/similar pain-relieving potential." It would be difficult if not impossible for a scientist to make an unequivocal declaration like this. She certainly couldn't without trialing cannabis.
Democracy - many would say demagoguery - has infected technical assessment when it comes to illicit drugs. I for one would find little comfort in knowing that the surgical operation I am about to undergo or the plane in which I am about to step into has an approval rating of an overwhelming majority of the voting age population.
This is why such a responsibility hangs on ethical political leadership in determining drug policy and in this Australia falls short. In the same way as the Sunday Telegraph correspondent did, the Prime Minister dismissed calls from expert bodies for a trial of medically prescribed heroin on the ground that overseas trials had not established to the point of scientific certainty that the intervention had in fact saved lives and reduced crime. Of course they hadn't, but they had produced strong evidence in favour of that conclusion.
The political arena is the right forum to debate the objectives that should guide drug policy and the morality that should underpin them. Having clearly established what those objectives should be, it is imperative that we be guided by the best expert evidence available in order to achieve them.
Let me try and draw things togther. Wanting a drug free community is not a sign of a zero tolerance zealot. Certainly, those who embrace zero tolerance share that ideal but so do many, many others. The zealot even as much as others will probably recognise it as unachievable. Even so, many will still believe it is worth aiming for even though it gets complicated when distinguishing between acceptable and non-acceptable recreational drugs.
Unfortunately I haven't got time to go into that or the libertarian arguments in favour of unqualified individual choice.
What distinguishes a zero tolerance zealot are two things: firstly a moral viewpoint that sees being drug free as of paramount importance and, secondly, a refusal to apply scientific principles of open minded inquiry to the assessment of evidence.
Are the moral absolutists so bent on stamping out drug abuse that they commit themselves to a set of measures that actually encourages the reverse? Many fear that the flood of methamphetamines shows this is actually happening. Because they are also dark ages dogmatists, the moral absolutists are unlikely to want to know.
Has zero tolerance become drug promotion? It would be hilarious if it were not tragic. Neri would have seen the irony. She probably did.
Note: Two or Neri's essays are reproduced in Brian McConnell & Tony Trimingham (eds), National Families & Community Conference on Drugs: "Voices to be heard": Conference proceedings, 10-11 November 2000 (Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, Canberra, July 2001) pp. 96-98 at www.ffdlr.org.au.