The Greens' drugs policy was widely ridiculed in Australia as an exercise in lunacy. The proposal for a pilot program designed to distribute heroin to users came under particular scrutiny. Underlying the criticism was the fear that rather than taking a traditionally hard-line stance against illicit drugs, more politicians, health-care workers, and even police were taking a look at harm reduction, that is, the minimisation of the risks and hazards of drug use rather than the suppression of all drugs, as an alternative.
The critics’ fears are well founded: the harm reduction model is rapidly gaining acceptance. But while they continue to support punitive measures in a vain attempt to stop drug use, drugs policy around the world is now beginning to approach the issue in a more reasoned manner.
Since the mid-1980s, Australia has been at the forefront of harm reduction. While initial drug policies relied on a punitive approach, the commencement of the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse in 1985 shifted policy-making authority to the Federal Department of Health, not the Federal Attorney General’s Department.
Approaching drug taking as a health issue, rather than a criminal one, saves lives. As a modest example, take Brisbane City Council's sharps collection program. The council collects 10 000 to 20 000 needles from bins scattered around the city every year. Crucial to the success of this program is the fact that intravenous drug users feel comfortable disposing of their sharps in public places. If police harassed them, many would not be inclined to take the trip to the nearest public washroom where they could safely dispose of their used needle, and may simply get rid of it as soon as it was used. At the risk of stating the obvious, a park littered with used needles constitutes a public health hazard.
Yet those who diminish the harm-reduction philosophy contend that there would be no chance of needles being found in a park if the government came down hard on drug users. They say that although interdiction is important, efforts against stopping the trafficking of drugs do not go far enough to stem the demand side crisis. Australia must become completely drug-free, they argue, and drug users must be caught and punished, and then entered into a drug program to kick their habit.
When the Swiss Parliament defeated a motion that would have made the cultivation of marijuana legal, critics of harm reduction wrongly believed they had found an example of a country moving away from drug liberalisation. While from my point of view the Swiss Parliament’s decision was the wrong one, there can be no doubt that the Swiss are in fact pioneers when it comes to progressive drug policies. Zurich’s infamous needle parks are gone, thanks mainly to experiments with heroin assisted treatments for severe heroin addicts.
But the Swiss are not the only ones who have instigated these programs. Spain and Germany have also instituted them. Vancouver opened safe injection sites in 2003. And Sydney has joined the fray. In November 2004, the Association of Chief Police Officers in the UK began to explore the possibilities of introducing “shooting galleries” in their country. Says Chief Constable Andy Hayman of Norfolk, “You have got drug dependent users injecting heroin and taking cocaine in unsatisfactory conditions. And you have people witnessing this horrible sight and seeing the discarding of dirty needles. We have to ask, ‘Why are we allowing this to go on?’”
Add to the mix needle exchange programs, methadone maintenance programs (which distribute synthetic heroin in liquid form for addicts who are trying to kick their habit), and initiatives in Western countries to relax repressive drug laws, and it is not difficult to understand why so many people have been predicting a tragic result to what they perceive is a drug-taking epidemic.
As evidence they cite statistics, like the ones printed in The Toronto Star, which recently reported that twice as many Canadians are using cannabis or injectable drugs as a decade ago. Four million Canadians have injected illicit drugs in their lifetime, as opposed to 1.7 million in 1994. These are dramatic figures to be sure, but do they mean that drugs laws should be toughened, or that harm reduction does not work?
In my opinion, they don’t. The penalties in Canada for possession of “hard” drugs like heroin are still very severe. Even so, record numbers of Canadians risk prison sentences to use them. To me, this suggests that current laws, aimed at curbing drug use, are not working. No matter what kind of penalties authorities dream up, there will always be those who will subvert laws.
Furthermore, while I believe that governments which institute harm reduction policies will see a decrease in drug taking, this is not the ultimate goal. The aim of harm reduction is not to stop drug use: it is to create healthier and safer communities.
The Greens' drugs policy is not “kooky,” as John Howard called it. It’s not even radical. It is the Australian variant in a worldwide effort to introduce good sense to drug laws. The implementation of some or all of the Greens’ policies is inevitable, no matter the opposition.
The hard-line drugs policy of the United States is not the model that should be copied. As The Economist put it, the war on drugs “has eroded civil liberties, locked up unprecedented numbers of young blacks and Hispanics, and corroded foreign policy … Half a century from now, America's current drugs policy may seem just as perverse as Prohibition.”
We’ve tried it their way. Their way doesn’t work. It’s time to try something different.