The Federal Government announces its new anti-drugs initiative, reports Peter Westmore.
The announcement by the Prime Minister that his government will spend an additional $150 million to counter the emerging illegal drug epidemic of “ice”, crystal methamphetamine, highlights the continuing problem of illegal drug use in Australia, and the failures of “harm minimisation” as a means of addressing it.
Ice, and the family of amphetamines of which it is a part, have been a growing problem in Australia over the past 20 years. It emerged as a “party drug” in the 1990s and, like other mind-altering drugs, was treated by health authorities as little more than a harmless stimulant.
The dangers of physical and psychological addiction were ignored, as was the evidence that drug use was associated with psychotic episodes, addiction and criminal behaviour.
The official mantra was that if you were going to use drugs, you should make sure that you knew their strength, and only take drugs in company, to avert the danger of overdoses: to use the phrase, “harm minimisation”.
Associated with the view that illegal drugs were basically a lifestyle choice was the association of illicit drugs with prescription drug abuse, alcohol and tobacco. Comparisons were made about the cost to the community of use of these substances, and the conclusion was drawn that illicit drugs were less costly to the community than tobacco or alcohol.
The message was that illicit drugs are a lesser problem than “legal” drugs and that, as we have legalised tobacco and alcohol, so we should legalise a range of substances such as marijuana, heroin and the amphetamine stimulants.
The results are now visible for all to see.
Six years ago, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that recent drug use was as follows: marijuana (18 per cent of those aged 14 and over), amphetamines (around 4 per cent), and ecstasy/designer drugs (2 per cent). Around 1 per cent had used heroin, cocaine, or injected an illegal drug, during the previous 12 months.
In 2007, the institute reported that usage of illegal drugs remained at almost the same level, except for marijuana where usage levels have dropped by a few percentage points.
However, as use of illegal drugs is concentrated in the 18-29 year age group, the figure is far worse than that shown above. The institute said, “Almost one in three people (31 per cent) in this age bracket had used at least one illicit drug and one in four had used marijuana/cannabis in the previous 12 months.”
It added that about one in eight people aged 20–29 years had recently used ecstasy, and around one in 10 had used meth/amphetamine in the last 12 months. Similar proportions of persons aged 18–19 years had recently used ecstasy and meth/amphetamine, each at 9 per cent.
These mind-altering drugs act not only as stimulants, but induce psychotic behaviour, including paranoia, violent outbursts and depression, and cause degeneration in the brain. As “ice” is also highly addictive, such behaviour can quickly become chronic, virtually destroying the user’s life.
Since the Howard Government came into office in 1996, the Federal Government has adopted a consistent policy of cutting supply, by increasing the powers of Customs and the Federal Police to intercept drugs entering the country. These efforts have had a significant effect.
However, because of the key role of the states in both law enforcement and health, there has been no corresponding effort to reduce demand.
Only when supply and demand for illicit drugs are cut, will the impact of illicit drug use be minimised.
Other countries have gone down the same path. Sweden was one of the first countries in Western Europe to adopt a tolerant policy towards illicit drug use, based on the “harm minimisation” approach. For example, it was possible in 1960s Sweden for people addicted to drugs to obtain prescriptions for amphetamines and narcotics; penalties for possession of illicit drugs were reduced, except for large-scale drug trafficking. The plan was to cut supply, in the expectation that illicit drug use would decline.
It didn’t. Drug use escalated and it became a major social and public health policy. Since the 1970s, Sweden’s drug policy has changed fundamentally. Penalties for drug offences were increased and the primary goal of public policy became a drug-free society.
The Swedish policy does not rely just on penalising drug users. One of the stated goals of Swedish drug policy is to rehabilitate users rather than punish them by way of the legal system.
Since 1982, drug treatment programs of up to six months’ duration are mandatory for illicit-drug users (and also for alcoholics). The main reason for this type of treatment is to protect the user or others in cases of life-threatening situations and to motivate the user to continue treatment on a voluntary basis.
The program is supported by all main parties, is funded by governments, and supported by an overwhelming majority of the people. The effect has been to reduce usage of illegal drugs over the previous year to less than one per cent of the population, compared to about 20 per cent in Australia.
Australia can, and should, do the same.
– Peter Westmore.