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The road to recovery from drug use: or is it the road to more addiction?

By Michael Robinson - posted Monday, 20 September 2004

Early in this federal election campaign Australians were told that the drug policies of the Greens were dangerous lunacy, and they are. Their policies are a prescription for a generation of unmotivated, dysfunctional addicts with cannabis and other drug-induced social, health and mental problems. If commonsense doesn't warn us about such experiments then international experience should.

Perhaps the prime example of this is Sweden's '60s experiment with loose drug laws that permitted drug experimentation on a broad scale. The rise in drug use and addiction was inevitable, and it was rapid. The consequences were so catastrophic for that country and its people, that the policies were eventually refocussed on preventing drug use. Outraged parents led a national movement that forced the government to back prevention of drug use and treatments that bring about recovery from addiction. Sweden became one of the prime examples of how to overcome the problems of illicit drugs.

Countries such as Switzerland are among those that have had decades of experimentation with liberal drug use laws and are now also turning around their policy mistakes. It is important that we learn from international experiences, not repeat them.


It makes what is happening domestically a concern to many Australians. Behind headlines of being tough on drugs, Australia's policy comes up lacking. When “harm minimisation” was first introduced in the mid 1980's it was clearly about the need to prevent drug use. It also acknowledged a practical need to bring addicts towards a point where they would stop using. Until they reached that point it aimed to reduce infections and other risky behaviours.

What is frightening those on the frontline of the current drug policy is that these early ideals have been dropped from the policy and replaced by harm management goals that continue illicit drug use.

The Prime Minister says that he is "tough on drugs", that his government is "tough on drugs", “It's what the Australian public demand from our government”. However when the policy detail is subjected to scrutiny it is clear that the details do not match the public's expectations.

The 2004 - 2009 National Drug Strategy is the governing national drug policy. It was put in place this year by the Howard Government but its fine print starkly contrasts with the headline slogans. Under the scrutiny of an election campaign we can only hope Australia's leadership recognises the need to refocus the policy.

The newly adopted National Drug Strategy states its mission as, "To improve the health, social and economic outcomes by preventing the uptake of harmful drug use and preventing the harmful effects of licit and illicit drug use in Australian society". In double-speak terms, that would make Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey proud, the policy document redefines prevention as, "measures that protect against risk and prevent and reduce harm associated with drug supply and use".

Gone is the goal of stopping illicit drug use and the new idea of managing the harm associated with drug use has taken its place. Clearly that is not the same thing as preventing or stopping illicit drug use, as Australians would expect. Without consistent efforts to prevent use by illicit drug addicts, a policy of only targeting large-scale traffickers is bound to fail.


While no one wants our young people doing time in jail for a youthful mistake, such as a bad decision to use illicit drugs, that does not mean we do not want police to enforce the laws.

The Howard Government often cites its enforcement efforts against major drug traffickers as a success, however unless law enforcement is consistent against all possession, criminals will simply adapt their distribution. International circumstances, combined with our own federal law enforcement, have contributed to a heroin drought, but this has not stopped or even reduced other illicit drug use. Police must uphold and enforce the laws and present offenders to the courts. The benefits of Drug Courts include opening the door to treatment and recovery wherever possible. Unless addicts are helped to recovery from drug dependency we have failed them.

One year ago The Family and Community Affairs Committee into Substance Abuse made 128 recommendations in The Road To Recovery Report (pdf file 1.84MB), and still no political party has committed to adopting these much needed recommendations.

The Australian public needs a firm commitment to urgently refocus the national drug policy on unambiguous and effective measures to prevent the use of illicit drugs, and to assist those affected to cease their illicit drug use. Treatment should lead to the non-use of illicit drugs. Any use of pharmacotherapies, such as methadone, should be a temporary measure leading to a drug free status. Effective measures such as Naltrexone implant trials should be given further support as a part of a broader treatment program to assist addicts to stop using.

Drug Free Australia strongly supports the enforcement of laws against the possession and use of illicit drugs, for the protection of the individual, and the community, from the health and social consequences of such illegal activity. This must include the enforcement of laws against importation, manufacture, trafficking, sale, moving, altering and interfering with illicit drugs. It is therefore a concern that the Labor party controlled states have been responsible for taking the nation's drug policies towards a quasi-legalisation of illicit drugs.

Across many Labor controlled states there are more deterrents to lighting up a cigarette than there are to lighting up a marijuana joint or using any other illicit drug. Australians deserve to know what the future of national drug policy is to be.

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About the Author

Michael D. Robinson is the Executive Director of Drug Free Australia Ltd, a community based organisation formed to coordinate national activities and efforts between like minded groups to educate the public about prevention, treatment and elimination of drug abuse.

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