HelpNotHarm: but what about rights?

August 12, 2017

A new campaign, #HelpNotHarm: Stand against mandatory drug testing, spearheaded by Dr Alex Wodak and GetUp!, has been launched in response to the federal government’s decision to deny income support payments to those who test positive to certain drugs.

Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said he was “stunned” by the decision to “strip people with alcohol and drug problems of income support payments”. However, for many people who use drugs, or are aware of the reality outside of the dominant historical narrative, this policy proposal is hardly shocking. It is, unfortunately, just the latest attempt in a long line of policy approaches to drug and alcohol use that have placed ideological desires above evidence-based responses or the upholding of rights and justice.

Wodak is right to accuse the government’s proposal of putting lives at risk. This policy approach, if enacted, would add another means by which many lives are needlessly lost or put at risk of harm.

Poverty and homelessness are both recognised as significant risk factors in overdose. The addition of another policy like the proposed drug testing and denial of welfare to people found to be using drugs would mean the further expansion of the war on drugs. It would be a further expansion of harm created by the policies and laws that enshrine inequitable treatment and deny too many people their right to self-determination, justice and health.

In the campaign video Wodak expresses his sadness about the “sort of country Australia has become and is becoming”, but since its inception Australia has been built on injustice and inequality.

Early laws

The earliest legislative responses to illicit drugs in Australia were the Opium Acts in various colonies in the late 1800s. These laws specifically related to the provision of opium to Aboriginal people and were part of a broader set of laws that controlled virtually every aspect of life in the name of “help” or “protection”.

The outlawing of providing opium to Aboriginal people can be understood as a means by which colonial governments reasserted and maintained control over Aboriginal people’s labour. It disrupted the perceived “threat” of competition to white colonial business interests presented by Chinese miners, who often paid Aboriginal labourers in opium.

After Federation, Australia was regarded as the highest per capita user of opiates in the world. The liquid form of opium, called laudanum, was favoured by many white women and was often given to teething babies to quiet them. It was imported by English businesses and was freely available.

But opium, and opium smoking, associated with Chinese people, was increasingly demonised and subject to harsh taxes and laws.

War on drugs

The war on drugs has always been about perpetuating injustice along race, as well as class, lines. It has always been a way of expanding policing and prisons, as well as maintaining state control over bodily autonomy — from the substances people administer to themselves, to those who profit from their labour.

If someone spends their money on drugs and not their rent, a landlord is missing out on income. If someone deals drugs to get by, the government misses out on income tax and a larger company is losing an opportunity to take a profit from their labour.

Criminalisation of drugs not only means huge public expense in policing and incarcerating individuals for victimless crimes. Criminalisation also means that drug users face high prices for criminalised drugs, which can be hard to afford — especially in a system that discriminates against people along many axes, including class, race, gender and criminal records.

To address these issues we need to take a rights-based approach and look at systemic change — offering to help individuals while maintaining the status quo will never bring any true justice.

The war on drugs in Australia had its foundation in colonial laws that continue to be applied by force upon lands over which sovereignty has never been ceded. If we see the latest proposed policy around drug testing and other manifestations of the war on drugs as surprising, isolated incidents, it means we are distracted from seeing their place in a larger architecture of state control over individuals and communities.

We need to consider who is really being helped by government policies and who can truly speak to what help looks like. We need to ask why the government continues to expand welfare income management “experiments” despite vocal community protests about the harmful outcomes of these policies. While drug users are frequently depicted as needing help by the government and mainstream media, we need to consider who is truly being helped by a government that continues the war on drugs and expands policies that harm communities.

Justice not help

While there is an obvious and critical need for a stand to be taken against this harmful, wasteful and discriminatory “war on drugs”, I question why it is “help” that is being called for as the alternative to harm. Why not rights or justice?

Drug users are frequently discriminated against and demonised. The stigma of being a drug user means we are seen as selfish and unreliable; as careless and unhealthy; as a drain on society and lazy; and as uncontrollable and violent criminals. But at the same time we are seen as victims who lack agency or decision-making skills.

The deeply entrenched contempt for drug users is often fuelled further by claims we need “help”. It is met with retorts that we already cost society so much and we should not have more resources wasted on our bad decisions.

In response, the campaign becomes even more conditional. To deserve this help, we are described as sad and miserable people who are trapped and need help to quit drugs. Because some of us may be saved and reformed, it is argued that we should be given help and not left to die.

But to describe the greatest need of drug users as “help” is misleading — unless “help” means help to end the war on drugs, help to end the criminalisation of people who use drugs and help to address the stigma and discrimination people who use drugs face.

If we had this kind of “help”, which other people refer to as their human rights or even their normal lives, we could help ourselves. If we needed extra help we could access mainstream services without fear of being mistreated and having our drug use held against us. Without the war on drugs we would not be experiencing such high incarceration rates and we would not be suffering from all of the associated negative consequences that come from being a highly criminalised population.

We must not forget that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced this policy of drug testing accompanied by a marketing pitch that it was about helping people who use drugs. Turnbull called it “tough love.”

Human rights

To take a stand against these draconian policies we need to be clear about what is causing harm to drug users. When drug use itself is depicted as the source of harm — devoid of the broader context and the role played by the war on drugs — further ammunition is given to this war on drugs. And as long as the war on drugs continues, then drug users will continue to need special “help.”

We need to expose all the ways the war on drugs is really a war on people who use drugs. Instead of placing the blame on people’s decision to use drugs in an environment that punishes them for doing so, let us place blame on the policies that continue to punish people and place them at risk to send a message that drugs are inherently harmful.  

We must be careful not to fall into the trap of making human rights conditional. We must not argue that we deserve them because we might quit drugs; because we might assimilate and become reformed. Instead, we need to question broader society and seek to change the systems that exclude people and then blame them for being failed by an exclusionary system.

We must move beyond a framework that advocates for “help” and restricts us all to “people being helped” or “helpers”. It is time to act in solidarity with one another and call for rights and justice, because if we all have that then we can all help ourselves and each other in a much more real way.

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