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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 17154


Senator DENMAN (7:16 PM) —Tonight I want to speak about misinformation, particularly as it relates to the drug problem. Misinformation is one of the greatest obstacles preventing progress in the debate regarding the use of mood altering drugs in our community. In the term `drugs', I include the use of alcohol and tobacco for, in case some of you have not realised, those drugs account for well over 90 per cent of drug related deaths in Australia. Unfortunately, there will be no mention of alcohol and tobacco in the Howard government's mail-out to families in Australia. Thus, the information is unlikely to have much credibility amongst our young people who can spot hypocrisy a mile off.

Although the government attempts to ignore the importance of legal drugs, our young people are not fooled. Research conducted in Perth using a sample size of over 1,000 young people found that alcohol and tobacco were implicated as important gateway drugs. This was contained in the report entitled Stages of drug use: community survey of Perth teenagers. The mail-out interfered with by the Prime Minister's office sends the message to young people, `You can drink and smoke yourself to death but if you use anything else we will force you to stop.' The young will see that message as one of `do what I say, not what I do'. Young people are not stupid. They will take little notice of a message that reeks of double standards.

Recently, Senator McGauran claimed there was no evidence that safe injecting rooms reduced rates of death by overdose. This statement was not sourced and contradicts research summarised by the Lindesmith Center in a document called Evaluation of safe injecting rooms, which found evidence that they are successful in reducing injection related risks and harms, including vein damage, drug overdose deaths and transmission of disease. I think we need to be very aware of that, particularly because we have not had a great outbreak of some of the diseases that other countries have had from injecting drug users. His statement did not seem to take into account the fall in overdose deaths in Frankfurt or the conclusions of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction summarised in their recent annual report. But supporters of zero tolerance very rarely let truth get in the way of a good story.

Some comment was made regarding the increased interception of drugs coming into the country, and a comparison was made between numbers and quantities of seizures during our tenure in government and the present government's. Simply, there have been more seized because there are more coming in. This in no way reflects on the hard work of the agencies involved. But the street price and the ease of purchase give a better indication of the success of attempts to reduce supply.

Official figures show that drugs are cheaper, purer and more available than they were five years ago. Demand and supply have both increased rapidly in the last five years, and supply has been increasing even faster than demand. If there had been a reduction in supply, the price should go up and the purity should have dropped. But this has not happened. So those indications are that there is more available, it is cheaper and it is purer. In fact, the Tough on Drugs strategy has seen a dramatic rise in overdose deaths and an increase of the `them and us' mentality. The government seems to believe that we can arrest and imprison our way out of this terrible situation with illicit drugs, even though none of the experts, including the law enforcement experts, believe this.

We have to accept that illicit drugs are primarily health and social issues. Health and social spending should match law enforcement spending. The debate on safe injecting rooms is a direct result of the Howard government's rejection of the heroin trial, despite a 6-3 majority of health and police ministers supporting a heroin trial, including their own health and justice ministers. That year, the number of drug overdose deaths increased by 23 per cent.

Drug use in most cases is a transitory problem, such as excessive drinking. We have to keep people alive and well while they use drugs so that they are still able to come back into the community when they reach the point of wanting to stop. Relying on incarceration, as this government recommends, is relying on an expensive way of making a bad problem worse. We only have to look at the American situation to see that. But none of these things were teased out in a speech given on what I would prefer to call harm reduction centres rather than safe injecting rooms. We should not overlook the many other health advantages in having these rooms, nor should we overlook the benefits these rooms have to people who do not inject drugs, including neighbourhood residents.

Why should residents of a neighbourhood where drug injecting has become established have to watch people injecting in public places just so that narrow-minded people can send a message to the whole world that they want to be righteous? We should rather send a message that government cares about our young people, including some who have made a bad mistake and started using illegal drugs. Obviously, a trial of a harm reduction room would not help those who do not frequent them. However, the international experience shows that injecting drug rooms do save lives of young people and do help to get drug injectors into treatment. Who could possibly oppose those objectives?

The Prime Minister recently launched a diversion scheme in Victoria with Premier Steve Bracks. While anything that diverts young people from prison is to be commended, it will merely scratch the surface of an ever increasing prison population that is largely full of those committing crimes to finance addictions. Mr Howard said that no-one should go to jail due to an addiction. These are commendable words, but the current approach is just more of the same. That is why Labor have given their support to various trials. We need especially to get into treatment the heaviest users in the community—the people who have not previously been tempted into treatment or who have tried treatment and nothing has unfortunately worked. I say `unfortunately' because helping these people—keeping them out of jail and getting them off drugs—is good for them, their families and the whole community.

We have to have the courage to admit that what we are doing now is not working; we must try new things. Eleven years ago, in their report Drugs, crime and society: 1989, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority said:

Over the past two decades in Australia we have devoted increased resources to drug law enforcement, we have increased the penalties for drug trafficking and we have accepted increasing inroads on our civil liberties as part of the battle to curb the drug trade. All the evidence shows, however, not only that our law enforcement agencies have not succeeded in preventing the supply of illegal drugs to Australian markets but that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.

The members of that committee included Senator Alston and Senator Hill, two senior members of the present government. Thus I suggest that, until we completely overhaul our entire approach to drug use in our society, we will see little change. Similarly, until the Australian National Council on Drugs, the ANCD, has the political freedom it needs to perform its important tasks—separated from the destructive interference of the Prime Minister's office—the skills of the good people on that committee will be relegated to political opportunism, with outcomes being more of the same: more deaths, more disease, more crime, more prisons and more corruption.