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Drug Lore, The Questioning of Our Current Drug Law






    Few topics have given rise to more emotional debate than the topic of drug law reform. For many years now, the debate and government policies have been influenced by a great deal of mythology and fear mongering.

    Many drugs that are now illegal were once prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists under a system of controlled availability. Thirty or so years ago, a heroin dependent user could obtain a supply of linctus heroin through this method. The dependent users maintained their health, remained productive in society and there was no drug problem' as we know it. Australia, under pressure from the US, prohibited heroin for medicinal and recreational use in June 1953. This action forced the dependent user who was taking regulated dosages of known quantities onto the streets, to deal with criminals and start injecting. This policy maximised harm. Not only was the user then exposed to a very risky practice in that there was no quality control of the drug, the user was introduced to a very risky form of administration - injecting. Many of those presenting with Hepatitis C today may have avoided that health risk if government policy had not forced heroin into the hands of back-yard dealers.

    The harm that was done to society had a multiplier effect. Instead of treatment and regular contact with a health professional, the users' domain became the streets. The more energy put into law enforcement the higher the prices. As the prices soared, so did the rate of property crime. Insurance premiums increased. Huge amounts of taxpayers' money went into bigger and better law enforcement to try and clamp down on the problem. People went to jail in their thousands for possession, use, supply and distribution. Thousands of young people emerged from jail with criminal records, increased drug use and exacerbated health problems.

    The amount of drugs available on streets steadily increased as did police corruption and violent crime. The system was not working. It still isn't. Alternative, rational strategies are called for.

    The Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform took the opportunity at the 7th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm to glean as much information from as many experts as possible on the subjects of law enforcement, health, economics and social development and how they are affected by current drug laws around the world. This we did by means of a panel which acted in a manner similar to that of a Parliamentary Committee hearing with witnesses appearing before us and answering questions.

    The witnesses who voluntarily appeared before the panel were all very generous with their time and their information. We thank them sincerely for their commitment and courage for openly discussing this contentious issue. We thank Mr Bill Stronach from the Australian Drug Foundation and the program committee of the 7th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm.

    The parliamentarians who made up the panel of this inquiry have given much of their time over the years to this issue, both privately and professionally. We would like to thank and acknowledge them for their work and dedication.

    Finally, we express our thanks Tina van Raay, who, as Secretary of the Parliamentary Group, compiled this report; her dedication to the task, her organisational skills and her understanding of the issues brought this report into being; and to Ron Owens, an inaugural member and former Secretary of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, for his editing skills.

Michael Moore, MLA The Hon Ann Symonds, MLC The Hon Mike Elliott, MLC  


Law enforcement of Prohibition (Chapter 3)

  1. Notwithstanding the vast amounts of legal and financial resources expended on law enforcement, the drug trade has flourished. (Page 16)
  2. Declaring war' on alcohol during the 1930's in the United States had the same result as declaring war' on illicit drugs has had in recent decades; profits made by the black market have increased, organised crime has flourished, property crimes have risen, civil liberties have been eroded and the burden on the criminal justice system and police corruption have steadily grown. (Page 16)
  3. The removal of one so called Mr Big' simply clears the way for others to take over. The drug trade continues to flourish. (Page 16)
  4. Stringent policing has unfortunately only increased the harm associated with illicit drug use. The dependent user fears seeking treatment and the recreational user is undeterred but adopts high risk practices and continues with his or her drug use. (Page 16)
  5. Law enforcement leads to the arrest of many more users than large scale traffickers. Drug use often continues in jail despite extremely high health risks. (Page 16)
  6. Despite their best efforts, law enforcement has only ever been able to interdict 20% of all imported drugs leaving 80% on the streets. (Page 16)

Social Ramifications around the world (Chapter 4)

The Netherlands

  1. The harm reduction policies in the Netherlands have resulted in a measure of success. The nexus between soft drugs' (marijuana and hashish) and hard drugs' (heroin and cocaine) has largely been broken through the availability of soft drugs' in a controlled manner in some coffee shops. (Page 20)
  2. Marijuana use on a regular basis by 14 - 21 year olds is now only six per cent, but in 1988 in Australia it was approximately 14% in the same age group. (Page 20)
  3. Police training focuses on harm minimisation. (Page 20)
  4. Heroin use by the young is decreasing. (Page 20)

The United States of America

  1. Law enforcement policies in the United States have resulted in massive numbers of people being incarcerated for drug use, with the vast majority (74%) being Afro- American even though only 13% of illicit drug users are Afro-Americans. (Page 23)
  2. Law enforcement has not deterred drug use. The health and social dangers associated with drug use have increased. (Page 23)
  3. Law enforcement costs represent a disproportionate amount of funds needed to ameliorate the declining social and health problems of the very community it polices. (Page 23)


  1. Stringent law enforcement, broader police powers and increasing erosion of civil rights have not stemmed the flow of drug use. Instead, these changes have fostered a series of major public health problems with drug users at the centre. (Page 24)
  2. There are a disproportionate amount of non-white males represented in the arrest and incarceration rates. (Page 24)
  3. Canada's policies seem to be heavily influenced by the threat of economic retaliation by the United States. (Page 24)


  1. Following direct intervention by the United States, Nepal has adopted a policy of prohibition in dealing with the problems associated with illicit drug use. This has created enormous health and social problems which did not exist to the same degree prior to prohibition. (Page 26)
  2. Drugs that were used traditionally for religious and recreational purposes in the past have now been outlawed. (Page 26)
  3. Endorsement for harm reduction programs has come mainly from the areas responsible for drug control than from health agencies. (Page 26)


  1. Pressure by the United States on India in the 1970's lead to the adoption of prohibitionist policies which have maximised the harm created by drug use in India. Prior to this India had virtually no drug problem Many cannabis smokers have now begun to inject heroin.. (Page 28)
  2. India now has a sizeable problem with heroin injection. (Page 28)
  3. Since prohibition, heroin has become much more readily available, even though the laws are extremely punitive. (Page 28)
  4. Huge amounts of heroin are shipped through India as corruption is endemic. (Page 28)
  5. Fifty to seventy per cent of the injecting population in Manipur are HIV positive. (Page 28)


  1. Harm reduction programs have evolved in Britain largely by default than through policy implementation. (Page 28)
  2. Because of unpredictable concentrations of street drugs, fatal and non-fatal overdoses are very common. (Page 29)
  3. Recent programs have been developed to minimise the spread of HIV. (Page 29)


  1. The heroin trials in Switzerland already show some positive harm minimisation results:
    (a) decrease in heroin use;
    (b) stabilisation of drug users' health;
    (c) forty per cent of the participants have found employment;
    (d) All of the previously homeless are no longer homeless. (Page 30)
  2. Some negative aspects to the clinical program include:
    (a) only those who have failed all other programs can participate;
    (b) clinical program is uninviting to many who do not want to change lifestyle or lose their social networks;
    (c) no guarantee of heroin maintenance after the trial and the threat of enforced rehabilitation deters many who are in most need of assistance. (Page 30)

Harm minimisation in Prisons (Chapter 5)

  1. Prison conditions reduce the frequency of injecting compared with the general community but, each injecting episode is much more risky in terms of transmission of blood borne viral infections, such as HIV. (Page 32)
  2. As an unintended negative consequence of drug testing in prisons, some prisoners turn to less easily detectable, but injectable, drugs, such as heroin. (Page 32)
  3. Few prisons have methadone programs and those which exist do not have enough places for all the inmates who require treatment. Evaluation of pilot prison needle exchange programs is warranted as needle sharing is very common. HIV and Hepatitis C transmission in prison is far more common than generally acknowledged. (Page 33)
  4. Realistic prison reform is needed to protect the health of prisoners, prison officers and the general community. (Page 33)

Prohibition and Indigenous Peoples (Chapter 6)

  1. Many of the problems associated with illicit drug use are symptoms of disempowerment due to dislocation from culture, lands, language and societal structures. Poverty and inequality of opportunity coupled with a mainstream stereotyping and scapegoating have added to these problems. Cultural specific harm reduction programs are called for which are conducted and controlled by these communities themselves. (Page 36)
  2. Prohibiting alcohol has created similar problems in some communities to those created by prohibition of illicit drugs elsewhere. Harm reduction programs, which are shown to have positive outcomes, have more chance of success. (Page 36)

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