Speech: ‘Harm reduction is the guiding principle of Australian Democrats drug policies’

“Candidates on Drugs Forum” – Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform – 9th August 2010

‘Harm reduction is the guiding principle of Australian Democrats drug policies’

Thank you.

I have a long history of supporting and advocating for drug law reform (as does my party).

As a bit of background, you might like to know what started my interest in drug law reform. Initially, it was school debates on legalisation of marijuana and heroin. I found the arguments fascinating.

Then as a university student in the 1980s, I joined the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The co-patrons of NORML were two of my heroes: Don Chipp (the first leader of the political party which I now represent) and Sir John Gorton (former Australia Party and Liberal Movement backed, independent Senate candidate for the ACT). If you haven’t picked up the connection there, I’m just pointing out that the progressive centre has always had a keen interest in drug law reform – a position which I now inherit as the current Australian Democrats candidate.

In the 1990s, I was a strong supporter of the proposed Heroin Trial and a safe-injecting room in the ACT. And this is a position, which my party has strongly advocated in ACT elections.

More recently, I have been quite outspoken about the idea that Random Roadside Drug Testing laws must be based on scientifically established driver impairment levels.

Reducing the level of damage inflicted by illicit drugs lies at the heart of the Australian Democrats drug policies.

The users of drugs are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters and our friends. They are not another species of human beings that deserve to be marginalised.

Drug abuse costs the community dearly. It touches not only the families who suffer from a loved one’s addiction, but all of us who pay the price for increased burglary to gain funds for drugs, and the cost of legal services and prison for those convicted.

The simplistic prohibitionist approach to illicit drug use has proved no more successful than prohibition of alcohol in the United States during the 1930s. Just as prohibition spawned a powerful criminal underworld, the ‘war on drugs’ is furnishing drug warlords with massive profits. Those profits are being used to corrupt both police and customs officials.

If these drugs are so dangerous, why do we leave the Mr Bigs in charge of them?

The Australian Democrats understand that zero tolerance does not work and only ends up costing the community money and lives, and keeps drug prices artificially higher, which provides greater incentive for more drug-related crime.

The criminalisation of drug abuse imposes a significant cost on the community and does very little to reduce drug use. It often means unnecessary exposure to the criminal justice system, and places drug users in a prison environment that may actually make their drug habit worse.

There is much evidence to suggest that burglary is most often drug related. In the ACT, the Democrats have called for increased research and support into alternative forms of punishment and rehabilitation for drug-related offences, such as a specialised drug court.

Prohibitionist and ‘tough on drugs’ approaches to illicit drugs are not working. Our lawmakers have repeatedly failed to base their decisions on the available scientific information about drugs. Drug and alcohol issues are more appropriately dealt with as health rather than criminal matters.

Nor is the ‘just say no’ approach to educating young people about the dangers of drugs effective. Where the message is heard at all it is often perceived as paternalist and hypocritical.

The Australian Democrats believe that effective education and realistic policies are the key to reducing all forms of drug use.

Many young people are impervious to the antidrug message when delivered by the ‘authorities’. We need much better information about what young people really think about drugs. That knowledge can then be used to develop more effective peer group education programs.

Until we strike the right balance, the war on drugs will continue to be a war upon ourselves. That balance falls between effective education and the judicious use of the criminal law.

This is to ensure that financial resources, and police and court time, are not wasted on the unnecessary prosecution and imprisonment of drug users and addicts; the focus instead should be on getting addicts the treatment they need. Police should concentrate their efforts on organised drug pushers and gangs.

We believe that drugs policy should always be based on independent scientific advice, which includes advisory bodies on the misuse of drugs being completely independent of government.

The vast majority of drug-related harm in Australia comes from the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. With alcohol proving to be one of the most dangerous drugs being regularly consumed in our society, lifestyle advertising of alcohol must be curtailed so as to allow information only about brand, variety, price and sale points.

The Australian Democrats support trials of cannabis, ecstasy and heroin for medical purposes.

There is good evidence to show that ecstasy might be useful in the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; and heroin is still used in some overseas hospital systems to alleviate pain.

I advocate decriminalisation of the possession and use of cannabis with a nationwide expiation system for personal use of marijuana.

Turning otherwise law-abiding people into criminals for the personal use of marijuana would be foolish and counterproductive. A supervised medical trial should also be conducted on the efficacy of cannabis as a pharmaceutical drug. Overseas research has suggested that the medicinal use of cannabis can be useful in alleviating pain of those suffering from cancer and other painful diseases.

Consideration should also be given to the idea that a way be found for a tax to be levied on the sale of cannabis.

Drug driving testing should extend to doctor-prescribed drugs, many of which are far more dangerous than recreational drugs; once a scientific means of determining a 0.05 BAC equivalent level of impairment can be established.

I’ll finish with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, which I think beautifully describes the criminal vs health approach to drugs:

“A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded … Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes.”

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