The heroin problem, and the other one


The heroin problem, and the other one

In English writer Samuel Butler's 19th-century satirical novel Erewhon, the inhabitants of the mythical country attempt to breed a race of healthy and beautiful people by punishing sickness and infirmity as a crime. In Australia today, Butler's satire is surpassed by the reality.

One particular illness, heroin addiction — although it is no more "moral" or "immoral", and inherently no more disruptive of society, than addiction to alcohol or tobacco — is outlawed everywhere in Australia. The law, moreover, is sometimes enforced with a viciousness towards offenders unmatched for other offences, as when prohibition forces addicts into behaviour, such as needle-sharing, that often amounts to a death sentence.

This serious public health problem — one which many politicians proclaim an "epidemic" — is being treated as a political football by the major political parties, which are engaged in a disgusting competition for the "law and order" vote.

At the moment, this competition is most intense in NSW, because of the state election on March 27. There, it has already led to the closure of one needle-exchange centre by Labor health minister Andrew Refshauge, who was previously distinguished for trying to close public hospitals.

Premier Bob Carr has promised to convene a parliamentary debate about heroin policy after the election, and to take testimony from experts — in other words, to posture and do nothing serious. This is the same government that rejected the expert advice of the Wood Royal Commission into Police Corruption for the establishment of safe injecting rooms for heroin addicts.

Prime Minister John Howard, to assist the state Coalition, whose electricity privatisation policy is looking like a case of attempted suicide, has tried to upstage Carr by announcing that heroin will be the central issue of the Premiers' Conference on April 9.

Howard has also met very publicly with the head of the United States' FBI to discuss that country's heroin "strategy" — which, in a nutshell, is to jail as many black and Hispanic users as possible, while not disturbing the Mr Bigs of the industry. The latter, in return, not only contribute generously to both Republican and Democratic election campaigns, but also provide useful undercover funding and services such as running guns to US clients from Afghanistan to Nicaragua.

Howard's Premiers' Conference ploy is particularly cynical, since he has already announced his undying opposition to the sorts of measures that would have to be considered in any serious discussion of the heroin problem. It was Howard who overruled his own health minister in 1997 and prevented a very limited trial of prescription heroin for addicts in the ACT.

Now members of the Australian National Council on Drugs, a hand-picked body set up to advise Howard on drugs policy, have revealed that Howard has prescribed beforehand what advice is acceptable and what is not. Included in the latter category is any trial of prescription heroin.

And, of course, Howard's reactionary views are echoed by Kim Beazley, nominally the leader of an opposition.

Deliberately ignored in all this is the simple fact that it is prohibition which makes heroin profitable for gangsters and expensive and dangerous for addicts. Removing prohibition would not do away with the alienation and other social problems that drive many people to use heroin, but it would certainly reduce the damage from heroin to both society and individuals. Yet both major parties are determined to deny this reality, no matter how many people it kills.

How big is Australia's heroin problem? Not nearly as big as the politician problem.