Tackling the taboo

By Kim Powell

Illegal drugs. It seems not a week goes by without the issue making the news. The South Australian Democrats leader Sandra Kanck stirred the debate in May by saying that the refusal to allow partygoers to test drugs at dance parties is counter-productive to minimising harm and that people will continue to die as a consequence of taking drugs because they do not know what is in them.

“We just keep on putting our head in the sand,” she told Parliament.

In July, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that nearly three quarters of Kings Cross residents and businesses support the medically-supervised heroin injecting room because of a significant reduction in public drug use, with 80 per cent of residents who have lived in the area for more than five years voicing their approval, yet NSW Liberals leader Peter Debnam has vowed to close it if elected in 2007.

Dr Philip Mendes, senior lecturer in Social Policy and Community Development at Monash University, says the community support for the injecting room indicates that people recognise that illicit drug use is happening and will continue to happen and so the facility provides some improvement to the local community, in terms of less discarded needles and fewer people dying in the street.

“The Opposition view I would interpret is both driven by philosophy and by the belief that it may be politically expedient to oppose the facility. Time will tell of course whether that proves correct or not,” Dr Mendes says.

“I think everyone agrees in principle that certain drugs are harmful.”

So, what are the two sides of the debate?

In the one corner are the harm minimisation proponents, who argue for supply reduction (stopping drugs from coming into the country), demand reduction (discouraging people from using illicit drugs) and harm reduction (such as clean needles, methadone and supervised injecting facilities).

In the other corner are groups who champion harm elimination and harm prevention or, by its old name, zero tolerance.
Dr Mendes says harm reduction is the only thing that overtly distinguishes the two viewpoints.

“What has been shown historically is harm reduction is effective in saving lives, it’s effective in preventing or certainly very much reducing the extent of people catching HIV or hepatitis through drug use and it is also shown to be effective in reducing harm to the community,” he says.

Points of view
Graeme Rule, from lobby group the Drug Advisory Council Australia (DACA), is a proponent of harm elimination and believes those who argue for the decriminalisation of drugs are being hypocritical.

“Our opponents like to call us prohibitionists – it’s a dirty word – then they move on to zero tolerance as if all we do is just say no,” Mr Rule says.

“I point out that in fact what the community is accepting is increasing zero tolerance on tobacco. The harm minimisation people are very strong on the point that everybody’s got a right to use what they want to use, yet they support all that’s being done about tobacco.”

Mr Rule disagrees with supplying prisoners with clean needles and condoms because everyone has a right to treatment and “we ought to be providing more within the office of corrections culture to ensure that people have the right to put drugs behind them”.

“It’s far better to work towards drug-free prisons than provide needles and so on,” he says.

“I know it’s difficult, but it was difficult to eliminate smallpox. We put the emphasis on treatment, on providing long-term support for people where they can put drugs behind them rather than shove them onto a methadone program. Methadone treatment is incredibly difficult to get off and users themselves call it liquid handcuffs.”

Both sides agree to some extent that education, particularly education of young people, needs to play a role in reducing drug use in Australia.

“Education of young people needs to be realistic,” Dr Mendes says.

“It needs to recognise that many young people see illicit drugs as socially acceptable and something they do as part of their normal adolescent limit-testing behaviour.”

Rather than sending a ‘just say no’ message to young people, Dr Mendes believes the message needs to include education about the potential harms, in the same way heroin users are told to use a clean needle.

“I think we also need to ensure that the message from Government and from law enforcement is flexible and sensible in terms of recognising that certain drugs are not as harmful as others,” he says.

 “If we try and push the line that marijuana is no different to heroin, for example, then you’re going to create criminal records for many thousands of young people who are not criminals in any other sense. But equally the young people are going to regard that sort of attitude derisively because they see many of their friends and peers using marijuana, they know marijuana is very easy to access, and then education will be struggling about the harmful use of marijuana because people are going to think ‘this is just the old generation being wowsers and many of them used anyway’.

“And of course many of their parents use alcohol, some in quite a significant way.”

Mr Rule says education is a tricky issue because there will always be kids who become more interested in illegal drugs because of drug education, but a bigger problem is that young people can’t make the distinction between decriminalised and legalised.

“The studies show that non-risk takers are not going to take drugs because they’re illicit,” he says.

“So once you decriminalise, many young people are going to say ‘it’s legalisation, it must be alright I’m going to use it’.”

He is perhaps more worried about the 85 per cent of Australian teenagers are using and abusing alcohol.

“It’s really our most dangerous substance for young people, the binge drinking culture at the moment is just deplorable,” Mr Rule says.

“The Australian Drug Foundation have pointed out that the percentage of alcohol in the mixers kids are drinking has gone from 4.6 to 9 per cent in one year. The alcohol industry has given young people a taste for attractive drinks, and now they’ve upped the alcoholic content.”

Another concern is the message being sent by popular culture, with films and music promoting ecstasy use as something fun. While marijuana use has declined in the last 15 years, the use of so-called ‘party drugs’ has increased with a record three per cent of Australians aged 14 and over reporting they have used ecstasy at least once.

“Ecstasy is not considered an ugly drug, it comes into the category of recreational drug and we really are trying to find new phrases to use instead of recreation or party drug because those terms are positive. It’s all part of the culture we live in, of ‘if it feels good do it’,” Mr Rule says.

“I’ve never yet met a parent who wants to see the community working out a safe level of illicit drug use.”

For more information on harm minimisation, visit the Australian Drug Foundation, www.adf.org.au
For more information on harm elimination, visit the Drug Advisory Council Australia, www.daca.org.au

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