The NSW Drug Summit was called when,
in the lead up to the NSW election, a front page Sunday tabloid
carried a photograph of a young user shooting up in the inner city
suburb of Redfern. Quite correctly the Government judged that a
drugs debate prior to an election would be a disaster and committed
to holding a drug summit in the first two weeks of the new Parliament.
Australia has a proud record of minimising
HIV spread among injecting drug users. Because of the early and
well-resourced implementation of needle and syringe programs in
Australia we have very low prevalence rates of HIV among our injecting
drug user population (about 2-3%). Clean needle services and methadone
programs have, however, come under increasing attack at a local
Given this background and that Premier
Bob Carr had been well known for his strong personal stand against
drugs, many who have worked for years for a harm minimisation approach
to illicit drug use were very concerned that current programs would
be at risk in a populist process.
Following discussions with a number
of contacts across health and law reform organisations we invited
a range of individuals from a number of organisations likely to
share at least a core of these concerns to an initial meeting. This
diverse group, which eventually became known as the Communities
for Constructive Drug Action, included the AIDS Council of NSW,
Parents and Citizens Association of NSW, the NSW Users and AIDS
Association, Family Drug Support, Family Support Services Association,
We Help Ourselves (a treatment program), a senior clinician from
St Vincent’s Hospital, the Hepatitis C Council, the Royal Australasian
College of Physicians, the NSW Law Society, Doctor’s Reform
Society, and a number of prisons rights groups.
The aim of this group was to engage
with the Drug Summit process in the most effective way we could.
By working together for a common set of agreed principles we might
not push as hard for all of our own individual organisation’s
views but would have the most impact for those we share. We also
made the decision as a coalition to push for a real program from
the Summit, engaging openly with other points of view rather than
A briefing paper was prepared and distributed
before the summit to media and all the delegates. It proposed a
program based on the goals of reducing death, disease, crime, corruption
and discrimination resulting from illicit drug use. We proposed
objectives of reducing drug related deaths by 50% in 5 years and
a reduction of imprisonment resulting from illicit drug use.
The program we proposed included concerted
action in the areas of:
- harm reduction;
- treatment services;
- law reform; and
- policy, research and consultation
Arriving at the Summit it became clear
both that it was incredibly important to have organised ourselves
as we did but also that the challenge would be huge for both community
delegates and parliamentarians alike. Squashed into the confines
of the Legislative Council chamber and into an equally tight agenda
were all members of both Houses of Parliament and 70 community and
‘expert’ delegates, all eyeing each other somewhat warily.
The set pieces on the first day indicated
an encouraging open mindedness on the part of the Premier, whose
interventions throughout the week were genuine in their leadership
and thoughtfulness, and the Leader of the Opposition who strongly
maintained an open vote for her party members. The Leader of the
National Party and a queue of individual MPs, however, rose to declare
their lack of openness to change.
It was a busy and at times emotional
and frightening week. Debate and opinion seemed to swing from one
side to the other as speaker after speaker put their point of view.
Conservative opponents of drug reform, such as Normie Rowe and Fred
Nile, stood up time and time again saying the "War on Drugs"
must continue and the approval of such initiatives as safe injecting
rooms would ‘send the wrong message’ to young people and
was condoning the use of illicit drugs. These delegates argued that
abstinence was the only acceptable outcome for drug users and elimination
of drugs from our society should be the stated goal of the Summit.
However the overwhelming evidence of
experts, field workers and drug users themselves slowly began to
influence even the most hardened thinkers. Contrary to the fears
many of us held going into the Summit we actually started to see
views change, some of ours included.
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