Drugs policy is a vexed area that arouses strong emotions. People see drug users and fear the unknown. The traditional response from politicians, particularly conservatives, has been to exploit these fears for political gain. The outcome has been an over reliance on law enforcement as a means of stamping out both the supply and use of harmful drugs.
In 2003, the federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs looked into drug abuse and produced a report that was in keeping with the history of drug policy. Although the report included some worthwhile recommendations, it called for the abandonment of harm minimisation as the principal objective of the National Drug Strategy. The committee wanted prevention and abstinence-based treatment to be the focus of government policy.
This position is partially reflected in the Federal Government’s “Tough on Drugs” policy. Penalties have been increased for drug offences, funding has been increased for drug law enforcement, the government has run several prevention campaigns based on dramatic images of the dangers associated with drug use and money has been directed to abstinence-based treatment services. All the while, harm reduction and other treatment services have remained chronically under-funded.
Given this history, the recently released report on amphetamines and other synthetic drugs by the federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission (PJC) is a brave document.
Most notably, in contrast to the report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee, the PJC expressed unanimous support for harm minimisation and recommended that “harm-reduction strategies and programs receive more attention and resources”.
In its conclusions, the PJC stated that “prohibition, while theoretically a logical and properly-intentioned strategy, is not effective”. It also argued that “the current national approach to illicit drugs - supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction - will achieve greater outcomes if a better balance between these approaches can be reached”.
In common parlance, this means there should be less emphasis on law enforcement and more on education and drug treatment.
In addition, the PJC recommended that a review be undertaken on illicit pill testing. Another important recommendation was that “public education and demand-reduction campaigns for illicit drugs be factual, informative and appropriately targeted”.
To those without intimate knowledge of the drug debate, these conclusions and recommendations may not seem remarkable. After all, they are rational and evidence-based. But that is precisely why they are worthy of special mention. Unfortunately, it is a rare event when any government body decides to make drug policy recommendations that are based on evidence.
The significance of the PJC report is not only because of the nature of its recommendations, but also the composition of the committee. It is made up of representatives of both houses of Parliament and includes members and senators from the two major parties.
There are currently five Liberal members, four ALP members and one Democrat, and the committee is chaired by Senator Ian Macdonald, the former minister for fisheries and conservation.
Despite the cross-party composition of the PJC, its report was not received warmly by the government. The Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Christopher Pyne, went out of his way to hose down suggestions the government should refocus its efforts towards harm reduction and harm minimisation. He stated in the media that “we’ve spent $1.3 billion on the Tough on Drugs strategy and now is not the time to be showing weakness in the face of the war on drugs”.
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