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Zero tolerance is about more than law enforcement

By Bob Babunda - posted Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The most recent rendition of the illicit drugs debate has organised itself around the zero tolerance-harm reduction dichotomy. Zero tolerance is presently the federal government’s preferred response to illicit drug use; harm reduction is the alternative policy.

The zero tolerance v harm minimisation debate rightfully enjoys a high place on the political agenda - we’re talking about billions of taxpayers’ dollars at a very sharp end of social policy. But this is one debate that could do with a lot more clarity.

The harm reduction camp has been very successful to date in painting a wholly misleading picture of zero tolerance. This is mostly thanks to a sustained disinformation campaign propagating a clear and simple message: zero tolerance is about arresting and imprisoning people, and sneering contemptuously at their maladies.


This harm reduction critique enjoys an increasing number of champions. Dr Alex Wodak is perhaps the most vociferous in deriding zero tolerance for its focus on “criminal and legal sanctions at the expense of health and social programs”. And this sentiment seems to have become received wisdom in the media.

Until recently, the entire harm reduction critique has rested on the claim that government spending on illicit drugs is heavily skewed toward law enforcement. The President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, for instance, thinks that “virtually all of the money, 84 per cent, 85 per cent of the money, is spent on supply reduction”.

This is the story harm reduction likes to tell about zero tolerance - all crackdowns and no rehab. It has been effective in helping harm reduction advocates stake an exclusive claim on treatment and prevention. But the facts of the matter are very different.

To begin with, about 60 per cent of the federal government’s $1.4 billion “Tough on Drugs” strategy has been spent on prevention and rehabilitation, with the balance on law enforcement. And the recent $150 million illicit drugs Federal Budget commitment is split 25:75 in favour of treatment and prevention.

So it is with great sincerity that, in the company of Salvation Army missionaries, John Howard can wax lyrical about “extending the hand of Christian help and friendship to people who are addicted to drugs”.

And even when accounting for all government spending - beyond just federally funded programs - expenditure on illicit drugs is quite balanced. It was estimated (PDF 414KB)by a very reputable research group that law enforcement represents about 56 per cent of all spending on illicit drugs across all levels of government in Australia.


So while influential, the harm reduction critique is just wrong. It is simply not the case that zero tolerance is a law enforcement-oriented strategy.

These days, harm reduction advocates are well aware of all this. They know that government spending actually favours treatment interventions. And now, with the facts of the matter widely known, many of them are grudgingly acknowledging it.

But they explain it in their own way, and their explanation is contained in that old chestnut, “hypocrisy”. It is logically inconsistent, we are told, for zero tolerance to invoke the goals of rehabilitation and prevention.

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About the Author

Bob Babunda is a policy adviser in the Commonwealth public service.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Bob Babunda

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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