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Minister comments on drug reform proposals announced by the NSW Director of Prosecutions.

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PETER CAVE: The Prime Minister insists that heroin trials don’t work, and he’ll meet FBI director, Louis Free, on Friday as he considers the New York police strategy of zero tolerance to drugs. But last night, one of the most radical proposals for drug reform came from the top of the justice system in New South Wales - from the Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery QC.


NICHOLAS COWDERY: I raise for consideration not prohibition but regulation. For example, for heroin we might maintain the prohibition on importation, the unauthorised possession of large quantities and unauthorised supply. Second, licence and tax importers, producers and suppliers - regulate them. Next, make it available on prescription so that it is characterised as a medical issue. Next, ensure its safe use to reduce the risk of blood-borne disease and the like. Next, improve education programs, of course, as a preventative measure and, finally, provide medical and social support services for addicts.


PETER CAVE: The New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, speaking in Sydney last night.


We’ve been joined by the federal health minister, Michael Wooldridge. He’s speaking to Alexandra Kirk in Canberra.


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Dr Wooldridge, we’ve just heard the reality of dealing with the effects of heroin. Is it time to take a radically new approach on drugs as suggested by the New South Wales DPP?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: No, I don’t think it’s time to completely give up and legalise drugs. I would like to correct something that’s been said for the last 24 hours and it was also in your introduction: we don’t have a zero tolerance approach to drugs. We have a zero tolerance in schools; we have a zero tolerance to drug suppliers; but our approach to people who are using drugs or possessing them for their own use is extremely tolerant.


ALEXANDRA KIRK: So you wouldn’t support the idea of heroin, for example, being available on prescription and ensuring the safe use of heroin?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: That is just not going to happen, and it is a distraction from what is the main game of trying to do everything within our power to reduce the use of heroin in the community.


ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Prime Minister isn’t a big supporter of a drug summit which has been suggested by a number of premiers, but he is now going to put drugs on the agenda of a premiers conference in April. Is it time for national unity on drugs as was employed, say, on the gun issue?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, I thought we had national unity up until a couple of days ago. The fact is the health ministers have been working very hard in the last two years on this. We’ve been working together; we’ve certainly broken down many of the barriers; we’ve put very great additional resources into the area; we’re trying a number of very innovative approaches to this. We will go anywhere or do anything if we think it will help. I don’t think it would help to have something that gives a great sense of crisis. The fact is nothing new has happened in the last three months other than a couple of tabloid newspapers have put this on the front page.


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Jeff Kennett, backed by a number of police commissioners, says that the zero tolerance won’t work. He’s pushing for a controlled heroin trial. You supported that idea but now you say the time for that has passed. Have you succumbed to political pressure from the Prime Minister on that issue?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Jeff Kennett seems to seriously misunderstand what the Commonwealth is doing. I take responsibility for that. I had talked to the Victorian health minister. Clearly, I should have informed the Premier because he doesn’t seem to know what’s happening at a Commonwealth level. The fact is we do not have a zero tolerance approach. We have a harm minimisation approach - approach based on education, treatment, rehabilitation, public awareness, trialing new treatments, research - and they’re just the things in my portfolio. A heroin trial is not supported by five out of six premiers; it’s not supported by the Prime Minister’s own expert committee that was meeting in Hobart yesterday. They said this is a distraction, and I agree.


ALEXANDRA KIRK: And no longer supported by you.


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: The fact is to focus just on something that is five per cent to 10 per cent of an overall strategy and not to focus on something that is 90 per cent to 95 per cent where we actually agree is very dangerous, and runs the risk of running the whole strategy off the rails. I think it could do far more harm than good.


ALEXANDRA KIRK: But there are reports that even the Swiss heroin trial - which the Prime Minister has claimed supports his argument that heroin trials don’t work - saw millions of dollars saved in gaol, police and health costs and there wasn’t one overdose. You’re a health minister. Why not support something with proven health outcomes?


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: The health outcomes were fairly marginal; the social outcomes were much better; and again, people do not seem to really understand what the heroin trial - 18 months to two years ago - was about, and I can understand that, I suppose, because they weren’t involved in a day to day level, but it was actually about health outcomes not social outcomes. If you look at some of the other drugs we’re trialing such as buprenorphine, LAAM, naltrexone, they may in fact have substantially better health outcomes than would have freely available heroin to addicts, and if we’d just focused on heroin we could have missed some of the other treatments that may in fact prove much better from a health point of view.


ALEXANDRA KIRK: Dr Wooldridge, thanks very much.


MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Thank you very much.


PETER CAVE: The federal health minister was speaking to Alexandra Kirk in Canberra.