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Is the Federal Government’s Drug Policy “hardline”, or just hard-hearted?

By Esther Singer - posted Thursday, 4 November 2004


Many in the health and drug sector believe that the Howard Government’s Tough on Drugs strategy isn’t working. Critics cite an alarming rise in Hepatitis C infection rates and the criminalisation and incarceration of addicts as evidence that Tough on Drugs means getting tough on some of the most marginalised members of our society - drug users.

So how did we get to be “tough on drugs”? And isn’t it time we heard drug users’ perspectives on all this?

Since 1998, when the Howard Government launched a new National Drug Strategy, Tough on Drugs, there has been a shift away from talking about drug use as a health issue to a more punitive approach.

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It’s a far cry from the feeling two decades ago when Australians watched then Prime Minister Bob Hawke weep on national television when asked about drug problems. Hawke later revealed that his daughter was a heroin user. This was the impetus for a new focus in national policy, and in 1985 the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse was launched, with all Australian State and Federal Governments adopting “harm reduction” as the official policy. Although most funding still went to law enforcement, the change paved the way for later developments to reduce drug-related harm; such as Needle and Syringe Programs (NSPs), initiated in response to the risk of a major HIV outbreak among injecting drug users.

Harm reduction takes a neutral approach to drug use, rather than a moral one, and emphasises programmes that respect the dignity of drug users and are supported by research. In practice it can mean education about safe drug use, de-criminalisation to remove the harm caused by drug users’ interactions with the justice system and funding NSPs, which were the flagship project of Australia’s harm reduction era. NSPs now include over 3,000 outlets where clean injecting equipment can be obtained. These range from health services, hospitals and pharmacies to dedicated needle exchanges and mobile services.

Australia’s approach has been internationally recognised, particularly our effectiveness in stemming an HIV outbreak.

In 1997 the ACT prescription heroin trial was approved by a majority of Commonwealth and State Health and Police Ministers. The Commonwealth Health and Justice Ministers were among those who supported the trial but this did not prevent the decision being overruled by Federal Cabinet, in the wake of a concerted campaign by the tabloid press and talkback radio. But Howard had not counted on community interest and support for the heroin trial (up to 45 per cent according to some polls) and was reportedly stung by the criticism he copped following the Cabinet veto.

In a bid to regain some support the Tough on Drugs strategy was hastily written. It pledged to pour millions more into law enforcement, and (unsurprisingly, considering the PM’s penchant for the mass mail-out) an education pack was sent to all households. An advisory body, the Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) was also established to ensure the non-government sector had a say in policy direction. Conservative Christian stalwart, Salvation Army Major Brian Watters, currently heads the ANCD and members include researchers, managers of treatment services, education staff and even a parent representative from family organisation Toughlove. Yet there is no representative from drug user groups.

Annie Madden is one of the most high profile injecting drug users in the policy community. She’s the Executive Officer of the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users’ League (AIVL), the peak body representing injecting drug users nationally. She argues that Tough on Drugs “has pushed us back to a very base level. … ‘Zero tolerance’ paints harm reduction initiatives as ‘sending the wrong message’.” And as long as the government worries about sending the “right message” about drugs, it is powerless to address the real health and social effects of drug use.

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The results of sending an unambiguous message can clearly be seen in the United States, where zero tolerance policies have prevented federal funding being used for NSPs or education to reduce drug-related harm. The outcome - over 30 per cent of the 40,000 new HIV infections every year is estimated to be the result of injecting drug use.

And now Australia faces the impact of a moralising policy. Hepatitis C infection rates increased by 45 per cent during the first 4 years of being "tough on drugs". One Australian is now infected every half an hour: just over 90 per cent of these infections are due to injecting drug use.

In an extraordinary interview with journalist Mischa Schubert on Meet the Press late last year Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott stated, “Frankly, ‘just say no’ is probably a pretty good message to things like illegal drugs”.

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This is an edited version of an article originally published in SPINACH7 Magazine, No. 4, Winter 2004. It was edited by Eve Vincent.



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About the Author

Esther Singer is a community development worker in the mental health sector.

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