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Off our tree on drugs

By Nick Xenophon - posted Friday, 11 November 2005

During the "Dunstan decade" of the 1970s, South Australia had a reputation for social reform. While Adelaide was referred to as the Athens of the South, it was from farther north that the then premier, Don Dunstan, sought policy inspiration. His friendship with Sweden's prime minister, Olaf Palme, reflected his passion for that country's brand of social democracy, including bringing to Australia that Swedish first: the ombudsman.

Dunstan had left office by the time the Swedes introduced another innovation in 1982: a radical overhaul of their nation's drug laws that aimed for a drug-free society with an intolerance for all the harm that drugs could cause.

Most controversially, Sweden's Care of Abusers Act  provides for up to six months' mandatory rehabilitation in an intensive, well-funded treatment facility with the unequivocal aim of leading the abuser down the path of a drug-free life.


Australia, by contrast, went down another path - many now would call it a praecipe - of harm minimisation as a way of tackling drug abuse, aiming to reduce hazardous drug use and promote safer use. As well, the states took a "roll-your-own" approach to cannabis. South Australia went further in 1987 with decriminalisation and a ten-plant ceiling for personal use: it spawned a massive cottage industry of hydroponic cannabis eight times more potent than that which Bob Dylan exhorted us to get stoned on 20 years earlier.

A consequence of South Australia becoming the altered state (until 2001, when the ten-plant rule was scrapped) was to expand the market for other mind-benders, particularly amphetamines and ecstasy. A generation on, the contrast between drug use in Australia and Sweden couldn't be more stark. The 2004 UN World Drug Report shows Australia to be at the top of the tree (or are we just off it?) of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations in illicit drug use: Sweden is at the bottom.

The annual prevalence of cannabis use is 15 per cent in Australia, in Sweden one per cent; ecstasy use is more than 4 per cent compared with less than 0.5 per cent for Sweden. With amphetamines, an increasing trigger for violent behaviour and crime, Australia's world-leading 4 per cent rate is a staggering 40 times higher than Sweden's 0.1 per cent.

The statistics only tell a fraction of the story. Every day and night in public hospital emergency rooms across the country, too many young Australians are presenting with severe psychotic symptoms. According to Craig Raeside, one of South Australia's senior forensic psychiatrists, if drug use is reduced substantially, so too will mental illness and crime. Yet the harm-minimisation mantra that has abysmally failed over the past 20 years continues to receive massive funding and political patronage.

A 2003 federal parliamentary committee report paints a bleak picture for those policy-makers hooked on harm minimisation. Hospitalisation and deaths from drug use increased from the mid-to-late 1990s by more than 20 per cent. Despite many millions of needles being exchanged - a key plank for the harm minimisers - the number of Australians infected with hepatitis C has jumped from 80,000 in 1985 to 225,000 in 2002.

A generation on from the harm-minimisation experiment there are parents in their 60s and 70s with 35-to-40-year-old dope users still living at home, welfare-dependent on invalid pensions, aimlessly surfing the net in their rooms while stoned on their cones. Yet there are harm-minimisation drug counsellors who tell their clients it's OK to restrict taking dope, speed or even smack to weekends.


All this is being funded by the public purse, while life-changing abstinence-based programs struggle for funding. Desperate parents taking their drugged-out teenagers to youth-focused services are often told they are "over-dramatising", to "back off, they'll grow out of it".

One such "over-dramatising" parent who was told all that in the early 1990s is Ann Bressington, whose then teenage daughter Shay-Louise graduated from that gateway drug, cannabis, to speed and heroin. By 1998 Shay-Louise was dead from an overdose.

Ann Bressington now runs an abstinence-based treatment program in Adelaide that carries her daughter's name, with a stunning success rate of giving young people a new, drug-free, lease on life. The program is the exception rather than the rule; Bressington has struggled for years for adequate funding.

Politicians who talk of being tough on crime, of tackling the mental health crisis, need to take a long, hard look at a major cause of both, a corrupted harm-minimisation approach to drugs that has done more harm than good.

Just as South Australia led the nation in the 1970s in social reform, perhaps we could do it again by implementing groundbreaking policy ideas from Sweden just as Dunstan did 30 years ago. The Federal Government has a key role to play in funding drug-rehabilitation initiatives. If the Feds can find $6 billion for new air warfare destroyers, surely they can find just a portion of that to stop a generation of young lives being destroyed.

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First pubnlished in The Australian on November 4, 2005.

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About the Author

Nick Xenophon is an independent South Australian MP.

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