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Wednesday, 16 February 2005
Page: 15

Mrs GASH (10:09 AM) —Drug abuse is a cultural problem that confronts many societies of many nations across the world. It is a scourge that costs billions of dollars through law enforcement, rehabilitation, health treatment and social dysfunction. It also costs industry a lot of money in lost production. There is no doubt that this is a social disease of astronomical proportions and, despite all the best intentions, drug abuse is one of Western society's biggest health issues. Being a part of the culture of this society, the military cannot be isolated. It is naive to think that somehow our soldiers, sailors and airmen are immune to social influences.

When I saw the Defence Amendment Bill 2005 come before the House, my mind was cast back to the debate surrounding the drug testing of athletes. Drug abuse has been reported since the Greeks started the Olympics in 776 BC. It was then reported that certain substances were ingested by competitors in attempts to gain some ground against fellow competitors. Olympic athletes in ancient Greece were believed to have used herbs and mushrooms in an attempt to improve their athletic performance. However, it was not until the early 19th century that the problem of drug abuse became a great menace to the sport. There were incidents where death ensued following drug abuse. In the late 19th century it was reported that French athletes drank a concoction of cocoa leaves and wine in order to reduce the sensation of fatigue and hunger. As a result, they were able to withstand strenuous forms of exercise and physical activity.

Drug taking has corrupted the ideal of sports. The pressure to win will make athletes do almost anything to find the extra bit that could make the difference. Many techniques are introduced to and employed by athletes in order to gain that extra mileage in their respective fields. These methods are used to increase the effects of drugs and to avoid detection during drug tests.

There are parallels between how we perceive our elite athletes and how we perceive our Defence personnel. We feel proud of them and believe they are something special. We want them to succeed on their own merit and we do not want to believe that they too are fallible like the rest of society. Discovering a representative sportsman is using drugs reflects on us—and we do not like it. Discovering a soldier is using drugs is an entirely different emotion. With our proud military history, the thought that our Anzac heritage has come to this makes us feel repulsed. In practical terms, we have a Defence Force to defend us when the nation is under threat. We would like to believe we can rely on a professional and loyal military to protect us, so when we hear reports of soldiers or servicemen being caught using drugs we feel decidedly uncomfortable, as well we should.

But the real impact has to be felt amongst the servicemen themselves. In a tight situation, how can you trust and rely on a known drug user? When it comes to the crunch will they be there for you? I think at this point it is necessary to reinforce the fact that it is not just hard drugs we are talking about; we are also talking about alcohol abuse, abuse of prescription drugs and use of so-called `recreational drugs'. In the last category lies the problem. The very term `recreational' makes it sound like it is all right. Aldous Huxley wrote:

If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution—then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise.

Our servicemen and servicewomen are not immune to the lure of escape or fantasy—or whatever it is that drug use brings. But they also have a responsibility to us and, more importantly, to themselves. Many can exercise that responsibility and not have drug use impact on what they do. But some cannot, and that is why I believe this legislation is so important. In historical terms, our experiences of drug abuse mirror America's, so looking at their experience can be a worthwhile exercise. The Americans have wrestled with the problem of drug abuse since the 1960s, when drugs became fashionable amongst the young. The young were, in fact, the recruiting base for the military, and the leakage of the mores of that society into military culture was obvious. In 1971, a report was released to the United States congress describing a heroin epidemic in the United States military.

In June 1971, the United States military announced that they would begin urinalysis of all returning servicemen. The program went into effect in September of that year and the results were favourable: only 4.5 per cent of the soldiers tested positive for heroin. Unlike the civilian population, the military environment is under far greater scrutiny and control. If a serviceman is found using drugs, he can be booted out, thus preserving as much military integrity as possible. Civilians stay civilians, and the response there is to punish, when apprehended, by imposing jail, fines or other sanctions.

At least in the military, we can appeal to the individual's sense of pride and belonging to effect behavioural changes. But, confronted with an entertainment industry that has the capacity to enter people's lives and shape their opinions, mounting a case against drug abuse is difficult. That the American media glamorised the use of hard drugs there is no doubt. A 30 May 1977 Newsweek story on cocaine was later accused of having glamorised the drugs' effects and underestimated their dangers. The story reports:

Among hostesses in the smart sets of Los Angeles and New York, a little cocaine, like Dom Perignon and ... caviar, is now—

a requirement

... at dinners. Some party givers pass it around along with the—

hors d'oeuvres—

... on silver trays ... the user experiences a feeling of potency, of confidence, of energy.

To impressionable young minds, drugs were a ticket to that lifestyle, if only as a means of seeking wish fulfilment. The perception was that using these drugs was `cool' and trendy. That perception remains today. It is the reason that adolescents begin to smoke: it elevates the perception of their standing in their peer hierarchy. I read recently that the brains of young people are not physiologically developed enough to fully appreciate the concept of risk and responsibility. Apparently, nature addresses this by the early 20s and females come out of it quicker than males. But it remains that this developmental retardation coincides with the recruiting age. I suppose that, in terms of risk perception, physically and psychologically, young people make ideal military recruits. But the downside is that this risk perception also draws them to fast living and the need for stimulation. Drug taking fits that prescription.

So I see the only real alternative at this time, in the absence of any other effective intervention, as being to test our servicemen and servicewomen for drug use. It is a step I reluctantly concede because I too would like to believe that our young people are capable of upholding their obligations. But reluctantly I have to concede that this is not the case. This bill seeks to enhance the existing testing regimen and enable provisions for future developments. Like drugs in sport, we have seen ways and means created of subverting the process. Perhaps as a means of deterrence, increasing the possibility of being caught using drugs might stimulate second thoughts before the person reaches for the drug of choice.

I hasten to add that this is just one form of intervention we have to rely upon. We will still need to continue to educate young people generally over the dangers of drug use and the downside of that culture—except in the military, where the need is more immediate. Our operational forces are very small and we have a lot of commitments. I would like to think that the team we put on the ground is the best we have and I do not want each private, seaman or airman looking over their shoulder in a war zone wondering whether Fred is going to be there backing them up. It is a fact of military strategy that a wounded soldier uses more resources than a dead one. We need to ensure that if there are any wounded that is not by self-inducement. The enemy are more than willing to accommodate this, so let us not help them harm us. I know this issue is unpalatable, but I applaud the government for being proactive on this. There are some who will argue that it is intrusive, oppressive and undemocratic to put our military under the microscope. But I say that when push comes to shove we will not have the luxury of debating the niceties of civil convention, especially when the bullets start flying.

It is important that those who sign a contract with the military are fully aware of their obligations and the expectations we have of them. They have to be set out clearly and precisely, and this bill seeks to do just that. My only concern is that establishing such a testing regime may prove a deterrent to some potential recruits. You might well say that those that are put off by this are better off out of the service. But I think there needs to be some focus on selling the benefits of zero tolerance to recruits or at least tempering the sanctions for having a positive result. I would like to reiterate the fact that recruits are drawn from a culture where drug use is common. It may be that we would equally have to consider measures to assist those tempted to simply say no. But, for the most part, I believe the legislation is warranted and I fully support it.