Drugs: how 'zero tolerance' costs lives

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Drugs: how 'zero tolerance' costs lives

By Will Williams

The NSW Drug Summit, called after the state Labor government closed down a needle exchange in Redfern before the last state election, met May 17-21 to discuss the problem of drug abuse and addiction.

The meeting of 135 state MPs and 80 other hand-picked delegates heard speeches from NSW police commissioner Peter Ryan, Premier Bob Carr, opposition leader Kerry Chikarovski and National Party leader George Souris.

Ryan called for increased police powers and tighter control of the methadone program. Souris made his party's stance clear at the start, when he declared: "The National Party is absolutely opposed to any relaxation of drug laws and is equally opposed to the legalisation of shooting galleries [injecting rooms] in NSW". He added, "Many chronically addicted heroin users are probably beyond any reasonable assistance" and "Once you've had one hit of heroin, you may already be beyond reasonable help".

"Zero tolerance" of drugs has been pushed by both major parties. But zero tolerance does nothing to address the underlying problems of society that lead to drug abuse. Instead it puts the lives of people using drugs at risk.

The week before the drug summit opened, a shooting gallery at the Wayside Chapel in King's Cross was raided by police and shut down. Only days before the opening of the summit, a person was found dead from a heroin overdose outside the chapel. A spokesperson from the chapel said the person's life could have been saved had the gallery remained open.

Zero tolerance

Capitalist politicians are not in the business of offering care or help when it comes to drugs. Rather than adopting a harm minimisation approach to drug users, politicians from both major parties have demanded that the governments "get tough on crime" and pushed "zero tolerance".

The federal Coalition government has made zero tolerance the centrepiece of its strategy against drugs. The 1997 United Nations World Drug Report reveals that the Australian government spends 14 times more on policing drug use than it does on treatment of people with drug problems, and more than eight times what it spends on drug education.

PM John Howard's government spent $191.5 million on "anti-drug" strategies between November 1997 and April 1998. Around $95 million was allocated to police forces to "target each step in the drug chain", $39 million went to his hand-picked National Council on Drugs and $55 million to treatment services.

In NSW, the state Labor government's response has been to punish the victims. Needle exchanges have been shut down, trial programs in the controlled supply of heroin for addicts have been blocked, and more and more police have been put on the street.

Abdicating the government's political responsibility for solving the problems caused by these measures, Carr has now proposed a "conscience vote" on drugs for Labor MPs.

Drugs and crime

Notwithstanding politicians' rhetoric, "getting tough on drugs" leads to an increase in crime. If drug addiction was treated as a medical condition, drugs would be available on prescription, and the black market controlled by criminals and crooked cops would be broken. Addicts would not be forced to pay huge prices for drugs and would not have to resort to crime in order to pay for their habit.

Studies have shown that most jail terms associated with drugs are for the lesser crimes of possession and use, rather than supply. Not providing enough funding for rehabilitation and treatment further victimises the drug user.

Legal aid for drug-related court appearances is almost impossible to get, so many people have no option but to plead guilty because they cannot afford legal representation. Even if the courts wanted to send convicted drug users to rehabilitation, there are no spaces available.

Giving police more powers to "combat" the drug problem is self-defeating considering the amount of police corruption associated with drugs that has been uncovered by royal commissions and other investigative bodies. The Australian Financial Review has estimated that the heroin trade in Australia is worth $7 billion, so it is little wonder that the force policing that trade cannot remain clean.

Even when drug users are jailed, the government's policies continue to endanger their health. At the Drug Summit, Ron Penny, from the Department of Corrections health section, told delegates that clean needles were being supplied because methadone was not available. Without access to clean needles, users are far more likely to contract serious diseases like AIDS or hepatitis.

Why people take drugs

In almost all cultures and societies, people have used drugs of some form: alcohol, marijuana, mushrooms, tobacco, opium, mescaline and so forth. Experimentation with drugs can be fun, challenging and interesting, and for these reasons it is hard to imagine a society in which no drugs exist.

The problem is not drug use, but drug abuse and dependency. Criminalisation of drug use drives it underground and makes it hard for users to get honest information on the health consequences. People who have a serious health problem, like drug addiction, are forced into the margins of society where they cannot get the care they need.

Making drugs and drug use illegal costs lives. People overdose because they don't understand the drugs they are taking, because drugs they take are laced or are stronger than they expect and because they are afraid to call for medical assistance for fear of being charged.

No government has proposed measures which can address the reasons people become addicted to drugs. In fact, most government policies only compound the social and economic conditions that lead to drug abuse.

The federal government's cuts to education, health and social security create lives full of unemployment, poverty, low wages, racism, sexism and homophobia. They make worse the pressures of getting a job, completing studies and living in bad family environments. These are all reasons why people abuse drugs. Solving these problems would remove many of the causes of drug abuse.

Solutions

The NSW Drug Summit made a number of recommendations that would help deal with the problem of drug abuse. Removing jail sentences for cannabis use, instituting heroin trials and allowing safe shooting galleries would all be steps in the right direction.

But if governments were serious about solving the drug problem, the use of drugs would be decriminalised. This would take their production and distribution out of the hands of the profiteers. It would enable drug use to be treated as a health issue.

The government should massively increase funding to the public education and health care systems, increase welfare and youth support services and launch a major job creation program to alleviate the alienation which drives people to a dependency on drugs.

Only measures like these will stop people dying from drug use.