Hi all, I’m still thinking through issues about the legal position on drugs. Should Australia decriminalise heroin or not? But maybe that’s not the main issue of the day. It seems that discussion about the legal status of drugs sometimes overwhelms discussion about how to help drug users. We can have harm minimisation schemes running along side those same drugs remaining banned. We’ve managed to do so here in Australia: heroin use remains illegal while we still manage to hand out safe, clean needles to those suffering from drug addiction. As the Australian Drug Foundation says:
Illegal drugsThe following drugs are some of the drugs that are illegal in Australia. Federal and state laws provide penalties for possessing, using, making or selling them, or driving under their influence.
- cannabis, including some synthetic cannabinoids
- ecstasy (MDMA)
- GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate)
- LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)
- PCP (phencyclidine).
There are also laws that prevent the sale and possession of bongs and other smoking equipment in some states and territories. (For example, Victoria has passed new legislation that will ban the sale of cannabis water pipes (bongs) from January 2012.)
But, as I learned in my Social Sciences Advanced Diploma, harm minimisation programs like needle exchanges and safe drug injecting rooms have a demonstrable, measurable, positive result on public health. Needle exchanges reduce the spread of HIV and safe lives. As Shereen El-Feki showed at this TED talk, HIV has spread like wildfire amongst drug users in countries without needle exchange programs. But Fred Nile confuses needle exchange programs with a soft attitude towards drugs. Maybe he is right, and we should not decriminalise heroin. I am yet to be convinced one way or the other. However, if we accept the statistics above, he is wrong to conflate needle exchanges with a soft attitude to drugs. Rather, it shows a commitment to our war on the spread of HIV! In June 2012 Fred stated:
“I note also that the Sydney Morning Herald has launched a campaign of so-called drug reform seeking to change public opinion strongly opposed to any watering down of laws regarding illegal drugs and supporting continuation of our current war against drugs. Some critics such as Australia21 and the Sydney Morning Herald suggest this war against drugs has not succeeded. They do not acknowledge that the war against drugs is continually sabotaged. The whole campaign of harm minimisation undermines the campaign against illegal drugs. The needle exchange program and the drug injecting room in Kings Cross undermine the war against drugs.
I don’t understand: how does saving the lives of drug users undermine our ‘war against drugs’? FACT: Needle exchanges prevent HIV infection, and drug injecting rooms prevent death by accidental overdose. Police may turn a blind eye to users attending both needle exchanges and drug rooms, while still banning drug use in the wider community. Sure there might be a few grey areas approaching exchanges and injecting rooms. This calls for careful evaluation of policing policy. It does not require either the wholesale adoption of heroin into our society, nor does it demand that we close all injecting rooms and needle exchanges.
I am still to be convinced whether decriminalising heroin itself is a good thing. I need more statistics. Can private heroin use be decriminalised while trading in the stuff remains an offence? What benefits would that bring for users seeking treatment and admitting to their health problem in the first place? Or would there be a large uptake in heroin use with consequences for the health budget in years to come? After all, one statistic I remember all too clearly is that it is the legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco that cost our health budget overwhelmingly more than the illegal drugs. But what is the cost to society in policing to keep those illegal drugs down? Is there a better legal and/or policing strategy? I’m thinking out loud here. But the one thing I remain committed to is needle exchange programs and harm minimisation programs. Fred Nile is, in my opinion, just plain wrong to confuse the two.
PS: I never knew heroin was also known as ‘harry’. That’s a bit unfortunate, given it is my son’s name! Some other names:
Heroin is also known as “smack”, “skag”, “dope”, “H”, “junk”, “hammer”, “slow”, “gear”, “harry”, “big harry”, “horse”, “black tar”, “china white”, “Chinese H”, “white dynamite”, “dragon”, “elephant”, “homebake” or “poison”.