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Tuesday, 24 November 1998
Page: 561


Senator STOTT DESPOJA (7:34 PM) —It is a pleasure to follow on from that contribution by Senator Watson. I say for the record that some of us are not embarrassed to purchase Kylie Minogue records. We like supporting young blonde women in public life—trust me.

On the weekend I was honoured to give the opening address at the First International Conference on Drugs and Young People, which concluded today. I would like to take the opportunity tonight to congratulate the organisers, the Australian Drug Foundation. I want particularly to congratulate them for incorporating into this conference a substream which looked at presentations from young people. Even in the area of youth affairs, it is often not that easy to incorporate young people's participation—even though it is, of course, quite essential.

When it comes to drugs and young people, the issue is always discussed as a problem. It is not often we hear young people's views on illicit and illegal drugs. Rarely are they going to speak candidly to adults, let alone professionals, their parents or, say, politicians. It is not just young people who are secretive. Recent media reports make it clear that governments seem to be having a lot of trouble in releasing research that has demonstrated high levels of drug abuse amongst young people.

It is hard to collect information on drug use and why young people would take drugs. Obviously, there are a variety of reasons—whether it is depression, or risk taking or experimentation, to name a few. For some, illegal drug taking will be a stage and they will pass through it, fortunately, without harm. One of the scariest statements I have read on the topic is this:

As young people move out and into the work force and take on more responsibilities they gradually leave drugs behind.

We have a teenage unemployment rate of around 27 per cent. Perhaps if we are very serious about tackling illegal drug use then governments, in particular, must consider job creation strategies.

If politicians, bureaucrats, health workers, teachers, parents and the media head off to the moral high ground, if they blindfold themselves with zero tolerance and ignore the reality, then we do not always get the real picture. I wonder if young people will believe us when we talk about such issues.

I commend the health department on its harm minimisation resources, such as `Rethinking Drinking' and `Candidly Cannabis' which recognise that some young people do take drugs and that they should be informed as to how to minimise health risks to themselves. There are also some excellent Internet sites such as `Stop Drugs'; some others are not so accurate or helpful. The Prime Minister, of course, is able to see the same research and information as I do, yet we hold different philosophies and advocate different positions on drug law reform.

The Democrats support harm minimisation over zero tolerance in relation to drugs. We believe that drug abuse is a social and a health problem that should be addressed primarily through medical and social services, not through the law and justice systems.

I do not doubt that the Prime Minister is committed to reducing drug related deaths and drug related harm in our community. He created the Australian National Council on Drugs and is spending almost $200 million over four years on the Tough on Drugs campaign. First launched in November last year, the Prime Minister described this strategy as a balance between law enforcement and education, treatment and research. I still think that the balance is too far in favour of law enforcement and ignores the real patterns of drug use. A recent Western Australian study reported that marijuana accounts for almost 75 per cent of drug charges and most people charged with drug offences under the Western Australian law are under the age of 25.

In fact, the biggest drug problems for young people are actually legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. It is for people over the age of 18, of course, that they are legal drugs. In terms of informed consent about what people are doing when they are using those particular drugs, there is a system in place with tobacco and alcohol. As legal drugs, they are sold in marked containers specifying the associated health risks, content and purity. That system applied to currently illegal drugs will be a step forward towards reducing death by overdose. I guess it is one of the paradoxes in the way that we treat different drugs according to who takes them.

Alcohol abuse is a serious problem in our community. It is estimated to cost Australians $5 billion a year. An estimated 13 per cent of Australians over the age of 13 years have been physically abused at least once by someone affected by alcohol. We do not want to criminalise alcohol addiction, perhaps better addressed with appropriate community services. However, I do note that particular crimes, drink driving and violent crimes, must attract serious penalties if we are to offset the prevailing mythology that alcohol is an appropriate legal drug.

In terms of smoking, Australian governments raise about $4.6 billion in tobacco taxes a year but spend less than a third of one per cent on smoking prevention programs. I guess in some respects, while our Prime Minister arms the borders to catch drug smugglers, quite appropriately, he might consider too the customs gates where large numbers of people openly display their drug of choice as they enter the country.

Between 1988 and 1996, heroin overdose deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds grew by about a third. In 1996, around 200 15- to 24-year-olds died due to heroin overdoses, which is approximately 6.5 per cent of all deaths among young people that year. There are a number of reasons to believe that there has been an increase in the number of heroin users in Australia; there has certainly been an increase in the demand for treatment. Yet the public debate around this issue seems to be stuck in the tiresome legal hoary chestnut of state-Commonwealth relations. Last year the Prime Minister scuttled a heroin trial in the ACT. This year, as you may be aware, Madam President, in your territory overdose deaths overtook road deaths.

The South Australian parliament in this past week has been debating a motion which could eventually lead to heroin trials in South Australia, my home state. Certainly that is the motion moved by the South Australian Democrat leader, Mike Elliott. As Jaap van der Haar, the Dutch expert who has been in town for the conference on drugs and young people, has said, it is clear that we should not speak of a heroin problem but of an addiction problem. However, in response to Mike Elliott's proposal, on Thursday the Minister for Health and Aged Care reaffirmed the government's firm opposition to heroin trials in Australia. I do note that there is perhaps in-principle support from at least one Premier, Jeff Kennett in Victoria, but he has added a caveat that no state or territory should have trials unless every state and territory is willing, which still seems to be a prime example of Commonwealth-state buck-passing.

I should note, in light of what was said by the previous speaker, that I find incredibly offensive Jeff Kennett's statement today that he believes the Democrats are the political whores. I state for the record that not only is that an offensive suggestion to all members of the Democrats but also it is perhaps particularly questionable given that we are a party with a majority female representation in this particular chamber and that we have a female leadership team. I urge that premier to reconsider such blatantly sexist and offensive remarks. Referring to Senator Watson's speech, when we use such terminology and abuse in public debate, no wonder we lower the esteem in which politicians are held in the eyes of the community.

I think heroin is a poison and a pain-killer. By and large, people have always been able to get their hands on drugs, so I do not think we can necessarily prevent supply. Especially in a country like ours, an island, it is very hard to arm all the borders, if you like. But I do believe that we have to try and work hard to reduce demand.

Marijuana is the most popular illegal drug in almost every advanced industrial society, but it is a drug particularly favoured by the youth population. More than a quarter of 14- to 19-year-olds have used marijuana in the last year, one-third of 20-somethings but only 4 per cent—that is, one in 25—of 40- to 50-year-olds. I have seen marijuana cause apathy, paranoia, giggling and stony silence—and that is only among politicians when we talk about decriminalisation.

I do commend to the parliament the work being done by the Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform. The Democrats support the decriminalisation of marijuana. There are a number of groups on record who support our policy, including the Law Council of Australia and the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform. Even the AMA are on record supporting drug reform. In my home state of South Australia in 1986, and in the ACT in 1992, we saw the relaxation of laws in relation to marijuana—in effect, decriminalisation for small amounts. It does not appear to have led to an increase in use compared with other states. So we really do need to examine other strategies.

We do not pretend that marijuana is a harmless substance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that marijuana being used today is a great deal more potent than that used 20 years ago, so one of the reasons we support decriminalisation is because we believe there are potential dangers with marijuana use. In a climate of fear and deception, where the issue of marijuana is swept under the table and where drug debate is taboo, the serious health issues are not been properly addressed. We can help young people avoid drug abuse. Criminalising them is not the way. Marijuana and other drugs can do great harm, but prohibition and punishment are not preventing drug abuse.