A Plea for Sanity ...
© Michael Booth 1996
The thirty years or so since illicit drug use emerged as a modern social phenomenon
have been marked by inquiry after inquiry and report after report. Every one of these
inquiries and reports has come to basically the same conclusion, that our current policy
of prohibiting some drugs is not working, and, more to the point, that it cannot work.
This week still more Australian politicians are about to consider another proposal that
has the potential to start us down a path that might well be able to circumvent the
considerable costs that our current drugs policies have burdened us with.
The Ministerial Council on Drug Strategies, which is made up of Health and Police
Ministers from every Parliament in Australia will meet later this week in Hobart in order
to consider a proposal put by the ACT government after four years of detailed research, a
proposal for a trial with the aim of investigating the controlled supply of heroin as a
treatment for dependent heroin users.
This latest excursion by governments into the field of drug policy reform comes just
after the failure of the Victorian Premier's Drug Advisory Council, or the Pennington
Report, which recommended wholesale changes to marijuana laws. In fact the bulk of
Pennington's report, which was drafted without any police serving on the Advisory Council,
was fairly innocuous. The report made eight general and some seventy two specific
recommendations that address: sustained local and statewide action; law enforcement;
legislative change; support and treatment; and information and education. Most of these
recommendations were uncontroversial motherhood type statements which did not attract much
comment at all, let alone any criticism.
The conservative thinkers and anti-drug warriors who are standing in the way of
meaningful reform of drugs policy must have had apoplexy when they read recommendation 7
of the Pennington Report. This particular recommendation called on the Victorian
government to amend the 1981 Drugs Poisons and Controlled Substances Act must have given
the anti-drug warriors apoplexy. The twelve specific recommendations that detail the
amendments to the Controlled Substances Act calls for the use and possession of less than
25 grams of marijuana to no longer be an offence, the cultivation of up to five plants per
household no longer be an offence, the trafficking of marijuana to an adult be dealt with
by a caution, while trafficking to a minor continues to be subject to heavy penalties.
Local governments be given the power to regulate offensive behaviour under the influence
of marijuana under the Summary Offences Act 1966. All convictions for possession and use
of small amounts of marijuana to be expunged. The initial penalty for the use and
possession of small quantities of hard drugs to be a police caution and referral to a drug
assessment and treatment service, with escalating penalties for subsequent offences.
Imprisonment should be used as a last resort penalty for drug users. Drug trafficking
offences should remain on the books, and be augmented by new penalties against driving
under the influence of drugs.
Despite the all too public focus on marijuana, the Advisory Council was originally
established in the wake of a flood of heroin onto the streets of Victoria, and a
subsequent spate of overdose deaths. The Advisory Council noted the connection between
marijuana and heroin - they are both illegal - and based their recommendations on the
desirability of removing the most widely used illicit drug - marijuana - from the same
channels of distribution and supply that also bring one of the least widely used, but
nevertheless destructive drugs - heroin - to young Australians.
Sadly the Pennington report fell on largely deaf ears. The Victorian Police
Commissioner weighed into the debate, saying that to implement the findings of the
Advisory Council report would be to "raise the white flag of surrender" in the
war on drugs. Disparaging remarks about the thrust of the report, and the general
unwillingness of politicians to provide any leadership on drugs policy saw Premier
Kennett, despite his reputation as a "can-do" leader who is not afraid to tackle
the hard questions, back pedal from his public commitment to implement the findings of the
Now there are more politicians considering a different aspect of reform to drug policy
- the proposal to investigate the usefulness of heroin in the treatment of opiate
dependent drug users. No laws have to be changed, no international treaties repudiated.
There is no proposal to make heroin freely available through supermarkets. There is
instead an extremely modest and conservative proposition before the Ministers to commit
themselves to a research project. It says much for the politics of drug policy reform that
even the ACT heroin trial is likely to be knocked back.
In the last few years heroin use has emerged from the hidden depths of the sub-culture
that it has inhabited since Keith Richards and Lou Reed made it trendy and fashionable in
the early 1970s. The last six months or so have seen articles about heroin in publications
like JUICE, Rolling Stone, the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as more conservative
magazines like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, the latter with a lingerie clad model
injecting herself. The films Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting has put the spotlight squarely
on heroin use, and there is also the three part documentary series currently being shown
on ABC television, Dealing With The Demon.
All of this public scrutiny of heroin has led some commentators to argue that it is the
attention paid to and the coverage of heroin in popular culture that is responsible for
the upswing in heroin use. Given the essentially conservative nature of our mass media it
is much more likely that all the coverage of heroin is a reflection of heroin use, and not
a promotion of it. Regardless, Australia is indeed experiencing something of a surge in
the use of heroin, and there is thus increased pressure on many parties to do something
For most in society, "doing something about the drug problem" has meant
increased penalties for use and trafficking, as well as associated legislation that can
confiscate any assets from accused drug dealers, the reporting of cash transactions,
increased police powers of surveillance and detention, and so forth. Indeed, the Royal
Commission into the NSW Police Service has heard evidence from one disgraced police
officer after another that it was their ineffectiveness at keeping drugs off the streets
that led them to set themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner, and plant drugs on
suspects, forge and falsify confessions, and finally, go into business themselves on the
grounds that someone was always going to sell drugs, and it might as well be them.
The report of the Victorian Premiers Drug Advisory Council is not without flaws. It has
a somewhat mechanical view of drugs and drug use that overlooks the fact that drugs are
first and foremost a phenomenon of culture and lifestyle, and that drug taking behaviour
is learned behaviour. Despite its defects, however, the report does implicitly recognise
the futility of trying to control drugs by placing an outright ban on them, arguing
instead that in order to alter the impact of drugs on society we have to alter the
circumstances in which people are introduced to drugs, and the circumstances in which
people purchase and consume drugs.
The vote later this week on the ACT heroin trial, as was the case with the Pennington
Report, has given a number of opportunities to address much of the harm done by drugs in
society, the more so given that all that the politicians concerned have to do is to concur
with the admittedly difficult decisions and recommendations that have resulted from the
independent and scholarly inquiries that have examined drugs policies. Those arguing for
drugs policy reform will probably be disappointed, though, as these latest carefully
researched and thought out recommendations finish up following the findings and
recommendations of every other major inquiry into drug policies, findings and
recommendations which have also recognised the sheer impossibility of using a policy of
prohibition to minimise the damage done to our society by the use of drugs.
Herein lies the real tragedy. The politics of drug law reform will ensure the triumph
of the irrational and illogical views of those like the Victorian Police Commissioner, who
argued that proposed new laws that permitted households to grow five marijuana plants for
personal consumption were simply unenforceable. The irony lies with the inability of the
Commissioner to see that current drug laws that totally prohibit the growing, possession
and use of marijuana are similarly unenforceable.
The anti-drug warriors who are manning the barricades to protect society against the
flow of illicit drugs are somewhat like the French generals who placed their faith in the
Maginot Line to stop the German army. While the police and other social conservatives are
trying to argue that reforming the laws will open up Australia to illicit drugs they are
overlooking the fact that, like the Maginot Line, their own line in the "war on
drugs" has been breached in so many places as to be practically and symbolically
useless. Drugs are widespread in society. There is no way that law reform can possibly
make drugs any more widespread than they currently are now.
Those opposing drug law reform might argue that changing the laws will send the
"wrong message to society, but they must also stop and consider what sort of message
is sent to society by the blind and stubborn refusal to even examine the evidence on drug
use, and to consider alternatives to a set of policies that have manifestly failed, and
must manifestly fail, in achieving their aims and objectives.
No better argument against law enforcement can be imagined than to consider what might
happen if the forces of prohibition and law enforcement were to become stunningly
successful. Imagine that every drug dealer and drug user in Australia were to come forward
and line up outside Police Headquarters one morning, each with a bag of dope in one hand
and a signed confession in the other. It sounds like a law enforcement officer's dream
come true, they wouldn't even have to go to all the trouble of tracking down the drug
users and dealers, all they would have to do would be to process the self confessed
offenders, and punish them according to the law. Drug problem solved.
In fact such a scenario is the stuff of nightmares for Australian Police Forces. During
1995 nearly forty per cent of all Australian males admitted to having used illicit drugs,
as did nearly thirty per cent of females. State and Commonwealth legal systems would
collapse under the weight of a strategy that actually detected and prosecuted all the
millions of those Australians, most of whom must be otherwise law abiding and tax paying
citizens. Assuming that the those arguing against drug policy reform are not asking
Australians to write a blank cheque to detect and prosecute drug offences, they should be
able to say to what extent the law can, and should be enforceable. Even a cursory
examination of the figures will show that the laws against drugs are not, and can never be
enforceable. Even if the Victorian Police Commissioner wanted to argue that the police
concentrate on those drugs that are demonstrably more dangerous than marijuana, drugs like
amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy, he will still have to acknowledge that the
policy he is supporting is trying to regulate the behaviour of an enormous number of
Victorians, a number that would overwhelm his police force and the court system should his
preferred strategy of law enforcement actually be successful.
Our current drug laws and policies are the result of a mish-mash of historical
accident, racial prejudice, international geopolitics, outdated morals, misleading ideas
about medicine and health, and the natural conservatism of Australian society and the
politicians who have resolutely refused to display any leadership. It might be argued that
our current laws and policies, given their origins, are just too hard to change. It might
also be argued that it doesn't matter much anyway. Those who want drugs can get them, and
the rest of us can hide behind the ineffectual remnants of the Maginot Line in the war on
drugs, secure in the knowledge that we are not sending the "wrong message",
whatever that may be.
It does matter, though. Hundreds of young Australians are suffering and dying as a
result of these laws, laws that cannot prevent a flood of impure heroin that is leading to
increased numbers of overdoses, and increased levels of hepatitis through needle sharing,
laws that make marijuana the most profitable cash crop in the country and ensure that the
profits go to criminal figures and corrupt cops, laws that ensure that some of the people
who use a particular drug are punished and marginalised, while other users get off scot
free, and users of other drugs altogether are given the protection of the law and the
assistance of society. Isn't it time for a change. John Howard climbed on top of thirty
five dead Australians to introduce a politically difficult decision to ban semi-automatic
weapons. Surely it isn't asking too much of him to listen to the experts, and climb on top
of the thousands and thousands casualties of the drug laws to argue for another
politically difficult decision?