and Friends for Drug Law Reform
to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use
in a Modern Community:
how to recognise the zealot
An address by Bill Bush of Families and Friends for Drug Law
at the Community Forum, "Society's Treatment of Drug
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
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
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
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"
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
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
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