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Drug policy sacrificed on the altar of narrow-mindedness

By John Ryan - posted Friday, 21 September 2007

A man in his early 20s was recently seen lying face down in the middle of a shopping strip, repeatedly banging his head on the pavement. People mostly walked by, seemingly oblivious.

He ended up at a nearby Needle and Syringe Program. Staff recognised signs of drug use. But they suspected there was more to his story than drugs. Perhaps it was mental illness that was driving him to self-harm. But the staff were not qualified, trained or resourced to help. They did their best to calm him down but soon he was banging his head against a wall.

He was soon at the emergency department of a major hospital. He was admitted and placed in an isolation room for people with drug psychosis. Staff called the notoriously overstretched crisis assessment and treatment team but they didn’t turn up. They kept him in the isolation room until his drugs wore off, and once he had detoxed, he was released.


Drugs are a hard issue. Ask anyone with a drug using son or daughter. No one in the world has yet discovered the formula to stop societal drug use. But plenty are making a profit from it, and not just drug dealers.

Drugs and mental illness is a complex area and we are still learning, whether police, scientist, parent or policy maker. We can get caught up in reaching for miracle cures and simple “magic bullet” solutions, outlandish claims and hallucinations. The latest misfire is Bronwyn Bishop’s parliamentary committee report, The Winnable War on Drugs, an artefact of shallow thinking.

Mrs Bishop has sadly followed the wrong leads and targeted the wrong enemy. Her inspiration comes from Drug Free Australia (DFA), the dads’ army of illegal drugs policy in Australia. Not only has she taken up their policy agenda and elevated moralism over the suffering of fellow Australians grappling with drug problems, but she has been suckered into celebrating their pet hates.

Their approach is to attack outspoken harm reductionist Dr Wodak and others who are determined to reduce the burden of drugs. Harm reduction has the audacious premise that drug use has a very long history. That we must apply ourselves to the reality that hundreds of thousands of Australians have broken the law and to be responsible we must have policies that respond to this, rather than the pyrrhic “Just Say No”.

At the DFA conference earlier this year, there was a failure to be enriched by diverse perspectives and to rise above petty personal attacks to address these difficult issues. There was applause when individuals (who weren’t there) were maligned. They were referred to as “the other side”. Delegates joined in revivalist style applause at the drop of a cliché. Conspiracy theories were raised to the level of truths.

Like Bishop, some speakers even held dedicated professionals responsible for our drug problems. Dr Alex Wodak, a drug treatment physician, supporter of harm minimisation and highly regarded all over the world, is their bête noir.


Science, evidence and compassion are sacrificed on the altar of Bishop’s and DFA’s twisted logic that people wanting to reduce the harm from drugs are actually responsible for creating the problem. Just like the argument at the DFA conference that condoms are fuelling the HIV epidemic!

The conference even went to the extent of flying in one of DFA’s purists, Dr Kerstin Kall from Norway. How does the obscure, hardly published, Kerstin Kall gain Bishop’s attention to supposedly unravel the evidence of harm minimisation programs in Australia including the internationally successful Needle and Syringe Programs?

There is an escape clause for Kall though: according to the strong praise and amens (literally) of the delegates, the scientific standards are an enormous conspiracy too. Peer reviewed academic journals are not worth the paper they are written on. These are not truth seeking research journals aimed at improving our knowledge and hence building our civilisation, they are just pedlars of pap and in the drugs area, dominated by the legalisers and other enemies of the people, “the other side”.

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This article is the personal opinion of the author.

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About the Author

John Ryan is the CEO of Anex - the Association for Prevention and Harm Reduction Programs Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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