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Wednesday, 2 March 2011
Page: 1025

Senator HUTCHINS (7:03 PM) —The scourge of illegal drug use and addiction is a serious health issue, posing grave danger to the personal safety of the individuals using these substances and having a serious negative impact on society as a whole. Some commentators and policymakers have advocated for an agenda on narcotics that includes dismantling the existing system of deterrent penalties against drug possession and consumption—a process decriminalising the drug trade. This is a radical approach that would only serve to further endanger our community by requiring the Australian public to accept the use of dangerous drugs as part of our national culture.

The phrase ‘harm minimisation’ has been a central tenet of Australian drug policy since the National Drug Strategy was first implemented in 1985. As a description, it implies that government should formulate an optimal strategy in lowering the impact of drugs on both the individual and the broader community. But among those who argue for decriminalisation the emphasis is on safe drug use. The best way to minimise the harm resulting from illegal drugs is to ensure that they are used as little as possible or, ideally, not at all, as there is no such thing as safe use of these substances. Decriminalisation sends a signal that government no longer considers this type of activity as worthy of sanction or as a risk to public health. It represents an implicit tick of approval for dangerous drug consumption, as authorities are no longer seen to be discouraging the practice. People will be able to get away with practicing their addiction in public, something that is currently and appropriately unacceptable. Some policies have taken this impression further, giving sanctuary to such a destructive influence on society.

The consumption of narcotics is not a victimless crime affecting the individual user to the exclusion of all others. It cannot be considered purely as a matter of private choice. The issue must be framed in two main dimensions: as a health issue for which an individual requires intervention and treatment; and as a public safety issue, where the spread of illegal drug use must be branded as unacceptable both at law and in the community.

The challenge of combating illicit drugs transcends concern for the wellbeing of the individual because, beyond this, we know that there is a high degree of correlation between drug use and criminal activity. A recent study conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology into offences committed in 2008 showed that in cases where a positive drug test was recorded that year, the most serious crime committed by an offender had the highest probability of being either an offence against property or a violent act. Previous research by the AIC has also found that, while drug use has not conclusively been isolated as a precursor to criminal offending, the two go hand in hand as part of a ‘general deviant lifestyle’.

Interestingly, it has been noted that cannabis, a drug that some are prepared to dismiss as ‘soft’, despite its strong links to the early manifestation of schizophrenia, leads almost invariably to a progression from use of cannabis products to use of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin. The ‘harm minimising’ response to this issue would not be to ignore one of the primary sources of the problem—that is, drugs that are so dangerous for human consumption that users run the risk of death with every use. That is not a market you can legalise and regulate. Steps towards legalisation just increase access to the product, the social acceptability of its use, the number of users and the cost of medical treatment.

One argument put forward for decriminalising or even legalising the drug trade is that, by making it legitimate and commercial, existing criminal drug trafficking networks will disappear, because this approach allows for competition and new entrants, making the industry less profitable. There is also the contention that legalisation grants the government some degree of control over the quality of the product. I do not see the logic in these arguments. Those supply chains that already exist will still be in place, immune to competition because new entrants will be prevented in much the same way as they are currently—on the street. The same people would still control the market and set prices, and control of the market would still be enforceable by violence. Controlling the purity of a product would also bring a high and unnecessary cost to government, all to support an industry in products that are extremely harmful to their users.

To legalise trade in such commodities purely because we have as yet been unsuccessful in eradicating black market supply chains is at best an ill-conceived capitulation of our responsibility to ensure public safety and at worst wilful complicity in encouraging the spread of narcotic use. The Swedish experience is a sobering lesson for those who would make drug use permissible in Australia. For a period in the 1960s, Sweden had among the most permissive drug laws in the world, and the effects were damaging. It was found that the most common drug users were not once-off experimenters but hardened addicts who faced no barriers to accessing narcotics and no social impetus to quit. Unsurprisingly, as a result, that country’s approach has changed. The deterrence based approach that followed led to a marked decline in social tolerance of drug use. As a result, drug usage has become much less common.

The balance between harm-minimisation strategies and prevention of drug use is one to be carefully managed. Incorrect calibration of public policies can send the wrong message. Despite the best intentions motivating such schemes, it is possible that some approaches do more harm than they do good. One particular initiative that exemplifies this is the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross. This facility allows for the injection of illegally obtained drugs in a medically supervised environment. There is no compulsion of users of the facility to reduce their drug use. Instead, their activities are treated in a supportive way, which includes staff observation. This approach could indirectly or unintentionally reinforce the habit of intravenous drug taking in particular, as addicts are provided with an atmosphere in which their addiction is not condemned and their activities are protected from legal consequence.

Teaching people how to use and giving them a place to act, exempt from the law, defeats the purpose of intervention and disincentives. According to an evaluation by operators at the injecting centre, the rate of heroin overdose in the facility is many times higher than that experienced by users on the street. Drug Free Australia, a community group concerned about the efficacy of this project, suggests that this is because drug users are likely to take greater risks with the volume of heroin they use when injecting at the centre. One statement from a former client of the centre, reported in the media, said of users:

They feel [a lot] safer ... because they know they can be brought back to life straight away ... they feel it is a comfort zone, and no matter how much they use ... they will be brought back.

This illustrates just how careful we need to be in designing policies that truly minimise harm to individuals rather than creating an artificial environment in which risk-taking behaviour is encouraged.

It has been argued that substance abuse is a structural condition of our society and that it is not possible for it to be eradicated. This may be a reasonable assertion, as committed individuals can find ways to abuse legal products to draw a particular physiological reaction. But for many substances there is no justification for softening our stance. Substance abuse must not be seen as permissible in Australian society. In our responses we must ensure that risk-taking behaviour is minimised.

Treating drug use as a health issue is not mutually exclusive to criminal sanction and a strong regime of law enforcement targeting both the supply and use of these substances. These are significant disincentives that discourage the trade and use of drugs in the first place. Removing the legal barriers that restrict supply and deter drug use would mean more users, cheaper drugs and increased acceptance of narcotic use in the community. This would be counterproductive to addressing the real public health concerns that substance abuse creates.

The former head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said that he is increasingly convinced that countries get the drug problem they deserve. I hope governments across Australia continue to work towards a society in which both the supply of and demand for illegal drugs is curtailed. Efforts to decriminalise these kinds of activities or make them seem mainstream or acceptable will only result in our failure to achieve the stated aims of our National Drug Strategy—to minimise the harm caused by drug use in our community.