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A Plea for Sanity ...

Michael Booth 1996


The thirty years or so since illicit drug use emerged as a modern social phenomenon have been marked by inquiry after inquiry and report after report. Every one of these inquiries and reports has come to basically the same conclusion, that our current policy of prohibiting some drugs is not working, and, more to the point, that it cannot work. This week still more Australian politicians are about to consider another proposal that has the potential to start us down a path that might well be able to circumvent the considerable costs that our current drugs policies have burdened us with.

The Ministerial Council on Drug Strategies, which is made up of Health and Police Ministers from every Parliament in Australia will meet later this week in Hobart in order to consider a proposal put by the ACT government after four years of detailed research, a proposal for a trial with the aim of investigating the controlled supply of heroin as a treatment for dependent heroin users.

This latest excursion by governments into the field of drug policy reform comes just after the failure of the Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council, or the Pennington Report, which recommended wholesale changes to marijuana laws. In fact the bulk of Pennington's report, which was drafted without any police serving on the Advisory Council, was fairly innocuous. The report made eight general and some seventy two specific recommendations that address: sustained local and statewide action; law enforcement; legislative change; support and treatment; and information and education. Most of these recommendations were uncontroversial motherhood type statements which did not attract much comment at all, let alone any criticism.

The conservative thinkers and anti-drug warriors who are standing in the way of meaningful reform of drugs policy must have had apoplexy when they read recommendation 7 of the Pennington Report. This particular recommendation called on the Victorian government to amend the 1981 Drugs Poisons and Controlled Substances Act must have given the anti-drug warriors apoplexy. The twelve specific recommendations that detail the amendments to the Controlled Substances Act calls for the use and possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana to no longer be an offence, the cultivation of up to five plants per household no longer be an offence, the trafficking of marijuana to an adult be dealt with by a caution, while trafficking to a minor continues to be subject to heavy penalties. Local governments be given the power to regulate offensive behaviour under the influence of marijuana under the Summary Offences Act 1966. All convictions for possession and use of small amounts of marijuana to be expunged. The initial penalty for the use and possession of small quantities of hard drugs to be a police caution and referral to a drug assessment and treatment service, with escalating penalties for subsequent offences. Imprisonment should be used as a last resort penalty for drug users. Drug trafficking offences should remain on the books, and be augmented by new penalties against driving under the influence of drugs.

Despite the all too public focus on marijuana, the Advisory Council was originally established in the wake of a flood of heroin onto the streets of Victoria, and a subsequent spate of overdose deaths. The Advisory Council noted the connection between marijuana and heroin - they are both illegal - and based their recommendations on the desirability of removing the most widely used illicit drug - marijuana - from the same channels of distribution and supply that also bring one of the least widely used, but nevertheless destructive drugs - heroin - to young Australians.

Sadly the Pennington report fell on largely deaf ears. The Victorian Police Commissioner weighed into the debate, saying that to implement the findings of the Advisory Council report would be to "raise the white flag of surrender" in the war on drugs. Disparaging remarks about the thrust of the report, and the general unwillingness of politicians to provide any leadership on drugs policy saw Premier Kennett, despite his reputation as a "can-do" leader who is not afraid to tackle the hard questions, back pedal from his public commitment to implement the findings of the report.

Now there are more politicians considering a different aspect of reform to drug policy - the proposal to investigate the usefulness of heroin in the treatment of opiate dependent drug users. No laws have to be changed, no international treaties repudiated. There is no proposal to make heroin freely available through supermarkets. There is instead an extremely modest and conservative proposition before the Ministers to commit themselves to a research project. It says much for the politics of drug policy reform that even the ACT heroin trial is likely to be knocked back.

In the last few years heroin use has emerged from the hidden depths of the sub-culture that it has inhabited since Keith Richards and Lou Reed made it trendy and fashionable in the early 1970s. The last six months or so have seen articles about heroin in publications like JUICE, Rolling Stone, the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as more conservative magazines like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, the latter with a lingerie clad model injecting herself. The films Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting has put the spotlight squarely on heroin use, and there is also the three part documentary series currently being shown on ABC television, Dealing With The Demon.

All of this public scrutiny of heroin has led some commentators to argue that it is the attention paid to and the coverage of heroin in popular culture that is responsible for the upswing in heroin use. Given the essentially conservative nature of our mass media it is much more likely that all the coverage of heroin is a reflection of heroin use, and not a promotion of it. Regardless, Australia is indeed experiencing something of a surge in the use of heroin, and there is thus increased pressure on many parties to do something about it.

For most in society, "doing something about the drug problem" has meant increased penalties for use and trafficking, as well as associated legislation that can confiscate any assets from accused drug dealers, the reporting of cash transactions, increased police powers of surveillance and detention, and so forth. Indeed, the Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service has heard evidence from one disgraced police officer after another that it was their ineffectiveness at keeping drugs off the streets that led them to set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner, and plant drugs on suspects, forge and falsify confessions, and finally, go into business themselves on the grounds that someone was always going to sell drugs, and it might as well be them.

The report of the Victorian Premiers Drug Advisory Council is not without flaws. It has a somewhat mechanical view of drugs and drug use that overlooks the fact that drugs are first and foremost a phenomenon of culture and lifestyle, and that drug taking behaviour is learned behaviour. Despite its defects, however, the report does implicitly recognise the futility of trying to control drugs by placing an outright ban on them, arguing instead that in order to alter the impact of drugs on society we have to alter the circumstances in which people are introduced to drugs, and the circumstances in which people purchase and consume drugs.

The vote later this week on the ACT heroin trial, as was the case with the Pennington Report, has given a number of opportunities to address much of the harm done by drugs in society, the more so given that all that the politicians concerned have to do is to concur with the admittedly difficult decisions and recommendations that have resulted from the independent and scholarly inquiries that have examined drugs policies. Those arguing for drugs policy reform will probably be disappointed, though, as these latest carefully researched and thought out recommendations finish up following the findings and recommendations of every other major inquiry into drug policies, findings and recommendations which have also recognised the sheer impossibility of using a policy of prohibition to minimise the damage done to our society by the use of drugs.

Herein lies the real tragedy. The politics of drug law reform will ensure the triumph of the irrational and illogical views of those like the Victorian Police Commissioner, who argued that proposed new laws that permitted households to grow five marijuana plants for personal consumption were simply unenforceable. The irony lies with the inability of the Commissioner to see that current drug laws that totally prohibit the growing, possession and use of marijuana are similarly unenforceable.

The anti-drug warriors who are manning the barricades to protect society against the flow of illicit drugs are somewhat like the French generals who placed their faith in the Maginot Line to stop the German army. While the police and other social conservatives are trying to argue that reforming the laws will open up Australia to illicit drugs they are overlooking the fact that, like the Maginot Line, their own line in the "war on drugs" has been breached in so many places as to be practically and symbolically useless. Drugs are widespread in society. There is no way that law reform can possibly make drugs any more widespread than they currently are now.

Those opposing drug law reform might argue that changing the laws will send the "wrong message to society, but they must also stop and consider what sort of message is sent to society by the blind and stubborn refusal to even examine the evidence on drug use, and to consider alternatives to a set of policies that have manifestly failed, and must manifestly fail, in achieving their aims and objectives.

No better argument against law enforcement can be imagined than to consider what might happen if the forces of prohibition and law enforcement were to become stunningly successful. Imagine that every drug dealer and drug user in Australia were to come forward and line up outside Police Headquarters one morning, each with a bag of dope in one hand and a signed confession in the other. It sounds like a law enforcement officer's dream come true, they wouldn't even have to go to all the trouble of tracking down the drug users and dealers, all they would have to do would be to process the self confessed offenders, and punish them according to the law. Drug problem solved.

In fact such a scenario is the stuff of nightmares for Australian Police Forces. During 1995 nearly forty per cent of all Australian males admitted to having used illicit drugs, as did nearly thirty per cent of females. State and Commonwealth legal systems would collapse under the weight of a strategy that actually detected and prosecuted all the millions of those Australians, most of whom must be otherwise law abiding and tax paying citizens. Assuming that the those arguing against drug policy reform are not asking Australians to write a blank cheque to detect and prosecute drug offences, they should be able to say to what extent the law can, and should be enforceable. Even a cursory examination of the figures will show that the laws against drugs are not, and can never be enforceable. Even if the Victorian Police Commissioner wanted to argue that the police concentrate on those drugs that are demonstrably more dangerous than marijuana, drugs like amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy, he will still have to acknowledge that the policy he is supporting is trying to regulate the behaviour of an enormous number of Victorians, a number that would overwhelm his police force and the court system should his preferred strategy of law enforcement actually be successful.

Our current drug laws and policies are the result of a mish-mash of historical accident, racial prejudice, international geopolitics, outdated morals, misleading ideas about medicine and health, and the natural conservatism of Australian society and the politicians who have resolutely refused to display any leadership. It might be argued that our current laws and policies, given their origins, are just too hard to change. It might also be argued that it doesn't matter much anyway. Those who want drugs can get them, and the rest of us can hide behind the ineffectual remnants of the Maginot Line in the war on drugs, secure in the knowledge that we are not sending the "wrong message", whatever that may be.

It does matter, though. Hundreds of young Australians are suffering and dying as a result of these laws, laws that cannot prevent a flood of impure heroin that is leading to increased numbers of overdoses, and increased levels of hepatitis through needle sharing, laws that make marijuana the most profitable cash crop in the country and ensure that the profits go to criminal figures and corrupt cops, laws that ensure that some of the people who use a particular drug are punished and marginalised, while other users get off scot free, and users of other drugs altogether are given the protection of the law and the assistance of society. Isn't it time for a change. John Howard climbed on top of thirty five dead Australians to introduce a politically difficult decision to ban semi-automatic weapons. Surely it isn't asking too much of him to listen to the experts, and climb on top of the thousands and thousands casualties of the drug laws to argue for another politically difficult decision?

finis


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