No zero-tolerance drug policy!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The death of Gemma Thoms at the Perth Big Day Out music festival on February 1 was tragic and preventable.

Reportedly, Thoms quickly swallowed several ecstasy pills at once, afraid that they would be detected by sniffer dogs. This kind of panicked response is not unusual. It happens at countless festivals, pubs and clubs around the country.

Many have argued that the use of sniffer dogs at music festivals and other venues is responsible for this risky behaviour. In September 2006 the NSW Ombudsman addressed this concern in his review of the police use of drug detection dogs.

However, the police and the politicians responsible for the policy continue to deny any responsibility in the death of Thoms.

The reality is that this "zero-tolerance" approach means that harm minimisation for people who choose to take drugs is ignored. Recreational drug users are treated as hardened criminals.

Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan denied any police responsibility for the death. He told the February 4 Australian: "Some of their propositions are quite frankly absurd and suggest that police should turn a blind eye, do nothing about drug possession, and ignore the state's laws regarding illegal drugs".

However, by indicating that "we [the police] will be at the Big Day Out next year doing exactly the same thing" in an interview with ABC local radio, O'Callaghan has shown that he is turning a blind eye to the possibility of more deaths occurring.

You need only to look at the numbers and types of arrests to see that this strategy targets recreational drug users rather than drug dealers.

Dance culture website, inthemix.com reported that there were "60 drug-related charges handed out on the day including 55 for possession, three for intent to sell or supply and four for possessing smoking implements".

This policing strategy neither works to reduce drug-related problems nor protects the public. But rather it is used as a public relations exercise to make an example of people and to be seen to be doing something.

Melbourne DJ Meg Mundell pointed in the February 4 Age that young people "take drugs for different reasons: to enhance the effects of music, lose inhibitions, escape everyday reality, experience altered states, block out problems, bond socially, copy their friends, have fun or just stay awake".

The police's "zero tolerance" strategy does not address any of these reasons, but rather relies on creating an aura of fear — the same fear that caused Gemma Thoms to take all her drugs at once.

Young people are not the only age group that uses drugs. It has been common knowledge than in many highly paid professions with long working hours, cocaine and amphetamine use is high.

A high profile case was the death of Melbourne QC Peter Hayes after he was found unconscious in an Adelaide hotel in 2007. Another Melbourne lawyer Andrew Fraser was jailed for possession and trafficking in 2001 after he developed a $1000-a-day cocaine habit.

Conservative Melbourne barrister Peter Faris, claimed on his blog in March 2007, "I have had anecdotal evidence over the last 7 years or so that cocaine is the drug of choice of high-flyers on the Melbourne legal scene."

"Obviously I do not have evidence of all this, but the reports that I have are sufficiently common to make the matter very disturbing."

He also stated that "When we witness the tragedy of young people dying from drug overdoses, we sometimes (partly) explain it by youth and immaturity. That makes it all the more shocking if some of the leaders of the legal profession are risking death by the use of cocaine."

Despite this, we do not see police applying for warrants for the use of sniffer dogs at legal profession social events or corporate boardrooms.

Rather, police are targeting venues and events attended predominantly by young people.

Without addressing the reasons for why young people, or anyone else, chooses to take drugs the government cannot claim to be concerned about harm minimisation or protecting the public.

Today's drug laws simply persecute the small-time recreational users — targeting young people and working class people.