28 August 1993

An injection of commonsense

Law enforcement temporarily reduces the drug supply and thus causes prices to rise. Higher prices draw new sources of supply and even new drugs onto the market, resulting in more drugs on the street. The Government reacts with more vigorous enforcement - and the cycle starts anew.
- Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate economist, New York Times, May 9, 1993.

As the illicit drug trade continues to exact its tragic social cost unabated, a sea-change in attitudes towards drug policy is beginning to sweep the international community. MICHAEL HUTAK sought some expert opinions.
As the illicit drug trade continues to exact its tragic social cost unabated, a sea-change in attitudes towards drug policy is beginning to sweep the international community.
That Milton Friedman - arguably the most influential right-wing economist of the postwar period - should be putting forward such views of the illicit drug trade would have been unthinkable in the Reagan/Thatcher years of the"war on drugs".
Friedman was speaking in favour of the Hoover Resolution calling on the Clinton Administration to end the United States' 20-year "war on drugs", a policy which concentrates on restricting drug supply through rigorous prohibition.
The resolution notes that the billions of dollars spent on the drug war -which escalated to $A64.4 billion under the Bush Administration - has led to widespread corruption and violence, and has undermined governments throughout the world without any reduction in drug abuse and drug-related crime. And the international drug trade continues to boom.
The ever more obvious failure of this unwinnable war is finally seeing the official tide turn in favour of a harm minimisation policy.
Harm minimisation aims to reduce the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug abuse without necessarily eliminating drug use.
While the policy still attempts to limit illicit supply and use, it places equal emphasis on reducing drug demand in the community.
Officially, harm minimisation has been Australian policy since The Drug Offensive was launched in 1985.
And that commitment was reaffirmed last month when a National Drug Strategy was endorsed by all Australian governments at a meeting of the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, the peak body through which the country's health and law enforcement ministers determine national drug policy.
But the professionals in the field - from policy analysts and lawmakers to police, health and social workers - are asking just how committed the Government is to harm minimisation, while Australian drug laws fill our prisons with drug offenders.
As a consequence, many are calling for new and radical solutions - such as the decriminalisation of marijuana, or even the open legalisation of all drugs of addiction.
MICHAEL HUTAK sought some expert opinions.
Dr Alex Wodak, director of the Drug & Alcohol Service, St Vincent's Hospital:
"It all boils down to this: once you recognise drug use is essentially here to stay, does the community want to preserve the present system where responsibility for selecting and supervising people who get heroin has been delegated to underworld criminals?
"Or do we want to see whether an imperfect medical system would be any less bad?
"Despite all our inadequacies in running the health system, I can't see how the possibility of providing clean drugs - of known concentration - could fail to be less evil than the present system.
"I think initially the community will only allow us to prescribe heroin within a program that encourages rehabilitation. Whether or not that's defendable is another question."
Peter Baume, Professor of Community Medicine at the University of NSW, and a former senator in the Fraser Government, who chaired the Senate select committee which produced the landmark 1977 report, Drug Problems in Australia- An Intoxicated Society:
"First, whether drugs are legal or illegal is a matter of fashion, not absolute knowledge. Second, drugs themselves are neutral - it's what people do with them. Third, prohibition has very major costs which, many believe, far outweigh the benefits.
"And of the deaths from drugs, 97 per cent are from the legal drugs. If we're worrying about drug policy, that's where our attention should be going. Ask yourself what the people in favour of prohibition are trying to achieve?They want a drug-free society - and there has never been one in all of history.
"It's a load of garbage, and we said as much in that very first report way back in 1977 - that a drug-free society is not an option. And that's why, on balance, I'm in favour of legalisation of all drugs. It's not desirable to use drugs but all we can do is work out ways that are accommodating to the reality that people do use drugs.
"At the moment all we are doing is filling our jails full of young offenders, making the drug producers and suppliers wealthy, and producing corruption in our police, our Customs, our magistracy and our prisons."
Justice Michael Kirby, the president of the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal, who was recently invited to sit on a new international tribunal on drug policy, based in The Hague, The Netherlands:
"I don't know that Australia really has embraced harm minimisation. Ministers can, at meetings, agree on sensible policies. But getting national and State laws changed from the present supply-reduction strategy - not to mention the international conventions which bind Australia to that strategy -is much more complicated.
"Despite the very stern measures adopted, a large number of cases before the courts are still drugrelated. There is no easy solution to this problem. What we have to look for is the least worst solution.
"I support a strategy which treats the issue as a public health problem, rather than a law-and-order problem - because the latter is only of random, intermittent and unpredictable success. But I don't see myself as entitled to defy the law. And while it is as it is, I will enforce it.
"There's no doubt that if people are addicted, they are sick. And a civilised society will treat them as sick people not as criminals - that's the bottom line."
Jim Snow, the Labor MP for Eden-Monaro, now lobbying Federal Parliament to make drugs of addiction, such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, available on prescription:
"When I was apprenticed to a pharmacist in 1952 people were able to get linctus heroin, which was prescribed for a cough. We had to report suspected addicts. It was treated then as a health problem, rather than a legal problem
"My proposal will be better for poor people because it will be cheaper -you'd only have to find $50 rather than $2,000 - and purer.
"Currently, the wealthier you are, the better quality you can get and the more reliable your source. The poorer you are, the poorer the quality of drug, the less reliable your source and the more likelihood of contracting AIDS or hepatitis B.
"I'm not interested in hardened addicts - we've got to tolerate the fact they'll keep using. I'm interested in reducing crime and the number of new recruits.
"Both doctors and pharmacists should be entitled to prescribe and dispense for recreational use - as long as the users are prepared to be recorded. And I do think it should be kept out of pubs.
"It's just recognising that if people want to do it, it should be safe for them to do so.
"While it would still be illegal to supply drugs other than on prescription, I wouldn't prosecute for possession. But I think that's an issue which should be debated."
Frank Costigan, QC, whose Royal Commission into the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers' Union, 1980-84, revealed widespread organised crime on the waterfront:
"The 'war on drugs' as practised by the Reagan/Bush administrations was madness. And while there's not a lot of empirical evidence about, the argument that legalisation reduces the influence of organised crime is a strong one. Nobody could talk seriously about buying drugs at Woolworths, but the question is, shouldn't we be dealing with this in a different way?
"My view is, yes, you've got to pursue the people making immense profits from drugs - the criminal organisations involved in major trafficking and importing should be dealt with with the full severity of the law. But the problem of users should be treated as a health issue with rehabilitation, counselling, treatment and so on."
Tony and Judy Foley, whose son died from heroin use, and who vehemently oppose the decriminalisation of drugs of addiction:
Tony Foley: "Our memories will be of the people out there selling drugs and involving young people - and that to me is just so destroying. I hope one day the Government thinks about the influence drugs have on our society, and what drugs are doing to our children.
"Heroin is a destroyer and there are not too many survivors."
Judy Foley: "The regulations are very hard in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. I can't understand why we don't have a similar system in this country. Any person who's brought in millions of dollars of heroin or cocaine is nothing better than a mass murderer.
"I don't think legalising heroin or cocaine will ever fix this problem."
Milton Luger, the founder in 1977 of the Odyssey House McGrath Foundation rehabilitation program:
"There's been a big push to get heroin legalised. But it didn't take off, so now they're pushing decriminalisation as the first step. I believe this is a pay-off for all the board members who are snorting coke on weekends; for the yuppies who don't want to get busted with marijuana; and for everybody who's making money and using drugs recreationally ...
"None of this will help the kids who are in despair, who have nothing going for them in life, who only use drugs to block out their pain because they've been sexually or emotionally abused by their parents or whoever.
"These are the kids who won't be satisfied with a regular supply - they'll want to use more and more. They'll never get enough.
"Does harm minimisation mean telling young kids it's OK to use drugs? Does it mean you tell them it's normal to use mind-altering substances? Sure, the answer is not to send anybody to jail, but to give them a chance to get off the drugs - and then expunge their record after a year."
Ann Symonds, NSW Labor MLC, and member of the Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform, a national bipartisan group, which in October will formulate a national charter on drug law reform.
"I belong to the group because I believe this is the way to declare publicly that the 'war on drugs' - which we've adopted from the Americans - is a failure, and it's not serving our society well.
"The bipartisanship between the major parties in support of the status quo really annoys me because what hope is there for change? These politicians are afraid of the media because this issue is usually dealt with in such a sensationalist way that nobody wants to be condemned for apparently being uncaring about the plight of drug users.
"Our National Charter will show another kind of bipartisanship exists for those who want change.
"What our more vocal supporters have in common is they're either independent or retired - people like Sir Rupert Hamer, Nick Greiner, Neville Wran, Frank Costigan, Don Dunstan and Sir John Gorton. And that's an indication of how vulnerable politicians feel about talking about drug law reform.
"If we can generate a wide-reaching, backbench movement, then we believe ministers might develop the courage to follow our lead."
Craig Thompson, a Sydney magistrate and the president of PRYDE (Parents Reaching Youth through Drug Education).
"The big missing factor is education. Advocating responsible use is a pro-drug message - it says use the drug, but do so responsibly. For kids to hook into that is not a good thing.
"Laws which stop kids getting legal drugs up to 21 years of age are there for a darn good reason - because the immature nature of growing cells makes them much more susceptible to harm than adults, particularly during puberty.
"Making drugs like marijuana and heroin more easily available to young kids is not good for them or society."
Gabriel Bammer, Australian National University fellow and the co-ordinator of a study investigating the feasibility of prescribing heroin to registered addicts:
"The ACT Government became alarmed at the spread of AIDS/HIV and decided new responses were needed. One such response is the provision of heroin to registered addicts in a controlled manner.
"So the Government asked the ANU's National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, and the Australian Institute of Criminology, jointly to conduct what has become known as 'the heroin trial'.
"It's a long way from legalisation. It's not about wholesale ready availability. It's a feasibility study about whether or not the ACT should implement a new method of treatment for people who are heroin-dependent.
"My fear is people will pre-empt the study. Once people take a position it's hard to get them to change - and I'm worried about prematurely polarising people's views."
Wesley Noffs, the director of the Ted Noffs Foundation:
"I can see the arguments for prescribing heroin. But just say you did. Some people would require the drug four times a day - because it's one of those substances which the more you have, the more you want.
"They would spend virtually all their time in a clinic using the substance. You'd get a situation where the addicts tended not to go home. Of course, you could argue they're not overdosing or using dirty needles. But let's see the models of how it would work.
"Anyone in drug and alcohol work would be watching the ACT 'heroin trial'with interest. I do support harm reduction completely. It's something which should be taken up by every drug and alcohol agency. And magistrates should make themselves aware of it - and I don't think they are.
"The very top echelon of the police is aware of the strategy, but I don't think it's filtered down yet."
Chris Puplick, former Liberal senator, commissioned by the NSW Minister of Health to investigate law reform appropriate to the National Strategy on HIV/AIDS:
"We'll be looking at things such as the operation of the needle exchange program, the methadone programs in prisons, and situations in general where people share needles - in essence, all aspects of drug policy as they impact on the way we manage the AIDS crisis.
"We'll also look at whether some drugs, particularly marijuana, have any relationship to the therapeutic treatment of HIV/AIDS conditions.
"There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting that in the later, almost terminal stages of the virus, marijuana does in fact offer some physical and psychological relief.
"Given that marijuana use constitutes a serious offence under NSW law, the question arises whether that is appropriate in this situation. But it's unlikely there will be a spate of prosecutions - after all, we're talking about people who are terminally ill.
"I expect to report to the minister by the end of November."
Tony Day, the NSW Police Association president:
"Of the drugs described as illicit, we would favour seeing them remain that way, from your soft drugs to your hard drugs. But we do see a need not to jail people for the use of marijuana, for instance, which could be treated by way of an infringement notice - as is done in South Australia."
Caption: Illus: Dr Alex Wodak ... "I can't see how the possibility of providing clean drugs could fail to be less evil." Picture by PALANI MOHAN
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Publication date: 28-8-1993
Edition: Late
Page no: 46
Section: Spectrum
Length: 2695
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

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