Australia still shirking drug policy discourse

The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children, and we are all letting it happen

Senator Bob Carr (Foreign Affairs Minister), Mick Palmer (former Federal Police Chief), Nicholas Cowdery (former Director: NSW Public Prosecutions), Geoff Gallop (ex W.A. Premier)

On April 3rd this year Aussies woke to news of “the most significant challenge to drug laws in decades”, as reported by Fairfax media below. Or download MP3 [41sec]:

Interesting then that Bronwyn Bishop looks set to sit on the Front Bench of Australia’s next Federal Government. In 2007 Bishop chaired a House of Representatives Senate Inquiry into the impact of illicit drug use on families. Dreamed up by John Winston Howard to give an airing to the extreme right wing anti-drug movement whilst simultaneously heaping shame upon the brilliant minds driving the policy of Harm Minimisation, it was an appalling example of a predetermined agenda.

For many years prior it was axiomatic to those involved with illicit drug policy and the impact of organised crime that prohibition was a failure. The War on Drugs is a war on people and it surprised no-one that Bishop entitled her all singing all dancing moral panic final report “The Winnable War”. It was rejected by every D&A policy, funding and health service of any standing. Indeed by many more with pretty much no standing.

Drug Free Australia (DFA) and a range of conservative anti-drug lobbyists held it in high regard. Ann Bressington, who squeezes anti-vaccination, anti-fluoride, anti-Harm Minimisation and Festival of Light fundamentalism into her day, was delighted. Then again, Ann verbally coached a witness through his submission to say he “escaped harm minimisation, not addiction”.

Bishop had given succor to one of their fundamentalist favourites, and on the same day attempted to batter one of their sworn enemies for his devotion to health policy, science and evidence. Perhaps I shall recount one exchange with the G.P. who used naltrexone, sedatives and the bible in bringing about the death of 25 of his heroin dependent patients in 20 months [summary]. Now an “expert” in naltrexone related fatality with Drug Free Australia (I kid you not) he said then:

I was interested to discover that the actual historical site of Sodom and Gomorrah has recently been found in Israel. On the bottom right of this slide are pictures of sulphur balls that have been found there. So consequences matter, and they can destroy a civilisation quickly, as we saw with yesterday’s tsunami and so on.

This slide shows a tree with snakes, which to my mind is a lot of the stories that you hear from harm minimisation. Methadone, syringe giveaways, injecting rooms, medical cannabis, heroin trials all those are catered for by the same people. But, on the other side of the tree, you have all the downsides, the side effects, which are not talked about in this culture.

It is of extreme concern to me that medical science which is known and understood overseas is not understood and not talked about and given no airplay whatsoever in this culture.
These are old slides I made several years ago, charting a lot of these behaviours: this is condoms and the AIDS risk, charting the parallel between condoms and AIDS deaths.

Ms GEORGE (Senate committee member): Sorry, I do not understand. What are you saying – condom protection and AIDS deaths are correlated?
Dr Reece: Yes, condom sales and AIDS deaths. I am saying that there is a statistical association between the two.

Under Keeping Up The War On Drugs Bishop wrote in her report:

A significant amount of damage to families and the community has been avoided by the government’s uncompromising approach to the trafficking and use of illicit drugs. Drug industry elites who have repeatedly claimed that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed are simply wrong. [...]

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) and its partners have been highly successful in limiting the damage of illicit drugs in Australia. The number and weight of detections for selected illicit drugs are generally higher than before 2000…

Increasing drug seizures reflect increasing drug traffic. Increasing traffic reflects increasing and increasingly varied demand. Such demand indicates more use and we already knew more use was due to ineffective tactics globally. The snide term “drug industry elites” still has life in certain circles. Essentially it demeaned those who dealt in evidence alone and advised accordingly.

Australia endured the rejection of science by politicians for the very tenuous reason of hopefully securing votes. At the States and Territories health ministers’ conference in Cairns in 1997, the issue of a heroin trial – the latest step in Harm Reduction to show exciting success in Europe – was raised. Ultimately Michael Wooldridge, four states and the ACT voted for trials to begin. The result was 6-3 in favour.

Whilst credit is due for his continued funding of needle exchange programmes, Howard had not just a conservative eye but a retributive one. The success of Harm Minimisation under the previous government left him keen to change the essence of a policy that had seen Australia emerge as world leaders. Thus we copped his Tough On Drugs approach – a dismal failure. He immediately cancelled the trial on advice from his Evangelical adviser and first Chair of the ANCD, Major Brian Watters.

Watters was already making enemies in the ANCD itself, for merging his Salvation Army role with what should have been best practice. A Drug Free Australia Board member, Watters’ disdain for science and academics was manifest. He had spoken on an episode of Four Corners with John Howard:

WATTERS: I mean, the Salvation Army’s been doing it for 120 years. No good these academics telling us it doesn’t work.

HOWARD: And I feel in very safe hands, with the police on the one side and the Salvation Army on the other.

WATTERS: It’s the law and the prophets.

HOWARD: It’s the law and the prophets. That’s right.

So it continued. The “law and the prophets” looking after in-need Aussies. One of the most used phrases in the bible, it’s most significant aspect is that Jesus came to “fulfill” The Law and The Prophets. Then we got the faith healers and the purists. The Evangelists and the righteous. Anti-harm minimisation groups arose – DFA itself funded by [then] Health Minister, Tony Abbott. Others re-emerged keen to sink the conservative boot in to such sinful wickedness as clean needles, condoms and honest, open health education.

In 2007 The World Federation Against Drugs firmed it’s resolve in Sweden in striking mockery of the NGO Forum at the 50th Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Human Rights, Harm Reduction and Health Responses we heard from [then] UNODC Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, would be crucial to future global policy initiatives. Apparently not if conservatives could help it. Populated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by a number of biblical fundamentalists, evangelists and young earth creationists one might appreciate the uncompromising stance and anti-rights position that WFAD entertain.

On May 21st Mark Metherell reported:

DRUG Free Australia may not be a household name but its leaders claim a role in repelling further moves towards what they see as the evil of drug decriminalisation.

It fears the ”tough on drugs” regime of the Howard government is unravelling, with the abandonment of the school drug education strategy and declining use of community advertising campaigns. [...]

‘Our view is that Australia’s illicit drug policy is too lenient, sending mixed messages to our youth,” [Jo Baxter] said.

Here’s a picture drawn by a child attending a DFA school education strategy (Hint: be drug free, go to heaven). Interestingly the Education Department in S.A. has a different view to Baxter on the matter. That article mentions a member of Youth for a Drug Free Australia, who is also head of The Recovered Drug Users League SA, Ryan Hidden.

He just happens to be the chap Ann Bressington coached to lie to the House of Representatives. But later Jo had him chatting to kiddies in school against Education Department instructions. A few weeks earlier he chose to dob in tobacconists the very day after Ann Bressington’s “bong ban” came into force.

Now… where did I read “mixed messages”?

Jo Baxter is Executive Officer of Drug Free Australia, Spokesperson for the S.A. “campus” of the evangelist driven Delgarno Institute is also vice-president of the World Federation Against Drugs. If you want an attack on human rights driven policy in Australia, Drug Free Australia is the group. If you want a “Heads Up People!” attack on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose main report also concludes prohibition has failed, the Delgaro Institute is the place.

But if you want to read an attack on the host of eminent Australians who produced the report raised in Parliament last April 3rd, Jo Baxter will even pop on her WFAD V.P. hat. So what do we get? Labelling the report compiled by 24 former senior state and federal politicians, experts in drug policy and public health, young people, a leading businessman, legal and former law enforcement officers, as “lacking substance” Jo begins:

The so-called ‘high level’ report on illicit drugs, suggesting that decriminalisation across the board, will solve Australia’s drug problems, lacks sound scientific basis and credibility and, as such should be discounted. The following a (sic) just some of the reasons:

First, it is not the ‘War on Drugs’ that has failed, but rather, it’s the failure of Australia’s Illicit Drugs Policy to satisfactorily address primary prevention.

For over 25 years Australians have endured a policy of Harm Minimisation, which has left a ‘train wreck’ in families and communities across the nation. [...]

They have failed to recognised that, between 2000 and 2006, Australia had a Tough on Drugs Strategyand our illicit drug use rates dropped significantly. The trend is now turning around. [...]

Which is it I wonder? A Harm Minimisation train wreck or a Tough on Drugs victory? Harm Minimisation arrested the spread of HIV, Hepatitis B and harmful drug using practices. The surge in heroin use is well documented as due to immigration of a S.E. Asian demographic able to import large quantities and sell at reduced rates. If prohibition was working initially this would not have happened.

Instead criminal cartels blossomed and later shifted to manufacturing their own product indoors. If prohibition worked that would never have happened. It seems to me like Tough On Drugs actually oversaw the rise of many new classes of drugs and an actual shift in the drug using habits of our community more in line with criminal profit.

As always Harm Minimisation and Reduction have functioned to manage the fallout from prohibition’s failure.

Effectively Jo’s article is a repeat of what the Drug Free Australia mantra has been, no matter what the title, debate, paper or conference. A synopsis of what Bronwyn Bishop concocted in 2007. A reflection on their bogus research on Supervised Injecting Facilities, Needle Syringe Programmes, Medicinal Cannabinoid research and so on.

The global Drug Free movement is to illicit drug policy in the community, what creationism is to evolution in the science curriculum.

Given the demonstrable failures of prohibition, we are still reticent to discuss this issue vociferously. Clearly it is a topic that can be easily misinterpreted, accidentally misrepresented or used to cast mischievous accusations toward those who mount firm evidence backed arguments. Much of the confusion stems from the fear that drug use under relaxed laws will equate to greater use. Often this is expressed as if one believes use will be compulsory.

Yet needle provision did not lead to increased use. The return on investment is four dollars for every one dollar invested. As needles are returned potential virus reserves are removed from the community. Users reciprocate with services learning to manage health and exploit opportunity to cease using. New users are resourced and educated to develop the means to never risk cross infection. The entire community benefits and vital dollars are not spent dealing with preventable problems.

Still, the false belief that use is encouraged this way persists in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Similarly the notion of deregulation is seen as a “free for all”, quite bizarrely likened to alcohol. Perhaps understandably challenges to drug prohibition evoke images of the end of alcohol prohibition. With this comparison comes the assumption all drugs will be readily available and an integral part of culture. Businesses will provide and houses will be stocked. The roads will be full of talkative, super-horny, hallucinating, dozing, dancing, slurring and very hungry drivers heading for pizza.

No. The only relationship to alcohol prohibition will be the removal of the millions of Al Capone types and the violence, intimidation, corruption, ruined families and poisoned customers that inevitably evolve. The failure of prohibition can be seen in a top down, if not linear fashion. Yet the way in which it is finally dismantled is in my mind not completely predictable and remains a complex bottom up venture to be managed with flexibility.

Evidence across the world shows use drops or remains stable with relaxed laws. The Portuguese example has presented in over a decade, remarkable success. The advantages of removing extensive punitive measures and simple stigma become manifest in a few short years. Legal resources freed from the waste of hassling petty users are brought to bear on serious crime. Users, freed from the fear of severe prosecution and shame become proactive in seeking help.

Potential users become a smaller market as drugs become controlled by authorities and subject to medical oversight – not criminal endeavour. More so, the opportunity to get ones life back on track is a reality that provides huge motivation to avoid drug use and experimentation. Presently in Australia, by the time users need substantial help they may be alienated from society, ashamed, angry and overwhelmed by the prospect of “perhaps” getting a decent life back under way.

Options used to mange illicit drug use are well explained in the Australia 21 Report:

  • Decriminalisation means specified proscribed behaviour is removed from the criminal law and is dealt with under the civil law.
  • De-penalisation means reducing the severity of penalties.
  • Legalisation means that the specified forms of behaviour are no longer offenses dealt with by the law.
  • Regulation means establishing a strictly controlled legal market for drugs as is the case with pharmaceutical drugs, tobacco products and alcoholic beverages.

Deconstructing prohibition is not a licence to take drugs. It is a means to remove lucrative profits from criminals and steer in-need and at-risk Aussies toward a healthier and more hopeful future. Those able to see a way out of the present mess all hold a somewhat unique view. No one person holds the solution, but certainly as experts and visionaries, groups such as the Australia 21 Board are urgently needed to begin the process of improving Australian lives and saving tax payer dollars.

400 Aussies die from drug related causes annually and countless others suffer a range of related harm that varies from mild to severe interpersonal conflict, financial tragedy or horrific violence. Lives are cropped of potential and under the present system valuable, talented and vital community members slowly withdraw from society even years after they have ceased to use any drugs.

Stopping us from turning this mess around is the movement I opened this article with. Whether it’s same sex marriage, being an atheist or removing the stigma from elicit drugs a vocal and well organised minority conclude that they can do any and everything to impose their own moral values on the rest of the society. In effect however, knowing that they cannot successfully do this the outcome is merely to impede progress to equality and thus limit the freedom of others.

Hence we cannot really have this discussion without at some point acknowledging it isn’t resisted just on philosophical grounds. The continuance of the war on people and the fruitless prohibition of illicit drugs, regardless of means used, is the single aim of those who today are seen attacking Harm Minimisation and Harm Reduction.

Therein lies the problem. Whilst arguments are akin to anti-vaccination rhetoric: repetitive, evidence free, conspiratorial, personal and peppered with linking all related ills to the present policy, in this case conservatives do have political sway. Thus full and open discourse regarding the retrieval of control from organised crime must include the reality that the anti-drug movement is guilty in it’s own way of inflicting suffering, corruption and death on our nation.

More so, they know this well. The bulk of attacks on Harm Reduction revolve around creating the pseudoscience and pathological theories to argue HIV has not been controlled by reducing the personal exchange of blood and body fluids. Despite the exquisite correlation between Harm Reduction absence and HIV presence across the globe it is still argued that HR “enables” drug use, thus causes all negatives that go with it.

Discourse is poor because the reality is that no government would dream of even broaching the subject for fear of alienating the conservative vote. Dr. Reece states above that condom use parallels AIDS deaths and God’s wrath will follow Harm Reduction measures as a “consequence”. Rhetoric fed to parliamentarians about Injecting Facilities is nowhere near as absurd, looks genuine to the untrained eye and can influence decisions. We should expect the same polish in defence of prohibition.

Changes in equal rights now look set to take years. The public is well versed in who the bigots are in matters of marriage, abortion and euthanasia. For the public to be prepared to take on a gradual change in their world view as it pertains to drug use and abuse, those truly dedicated to abolishing prohibition need to expose the bigots and the saboteurs also. And yes, it may be that simply opening channels of discussion will be enough to do this.

The evidence is irrefutable. Prohibition has failed and it is killing Australians. We don’t just need discussion on the necessity for change. We need discussion on why there is as yet no change and instead a persistent silence. Every report on this issue and every report on Harm Minimisation success is attacked by anti-drug lobbyists such as Drug Free Australia.

When we do expand the discussion we must be prepared to lay the blame at their door.

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About @advodiaboli
I'm not really a cast iron flying pig.

2 Responses to Australia still shirking drug policy discourse

  1. Melissa P says:

    Thank you.

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