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The Australian Greens are right on illicit drugs

By Philip Mendes - posted Thursday, 14 June 2007

Public debates over illicit drugs are often dominated by emotive headlines and deliberate misinformation. The case of the Australians Greens illicit drugs policy is a prime example.

Over the past five years, there has been numerous political and media criticisms of the Greens drugs policy. During the 2004 federal election, for example, both the Howard Government and the Family First Party published advertisements attacking the Greens. The latter accused the Greens of recommending the legalisation of heroin and ecstasy, and planning to give drugs to children.

In addition, the Melbourne Herald Sun alleged that the Greens would sell ecstasy and other illegal drugs over the counter to young users. Similarly during the 2007 New South Wales state election, the leaders of both the Labor and Liberal parties censured the Greens policy as damaging and absurd.


On reading the above statements, one might assume that the Greens were extreme libertarians who wished to remove all legal barriers to the sale and consumption of illicit drugs. But this is not the case at all. In fact, a dispassionate analysis of the Greens actual drugs policy suggests that they are really little more than pragmatic moderates who aim to address the reality of illicit drug use and misuse in Australian society.

The original Greens policy titled Drugs and Addiction, which seems to have been drafted in 2001, emphasises a public health rather than criminal approach to illicit drugs.

The policy accepts that many Australians will elect to use drugs, endorses a harm minimisation approach to treatment, and argues that the key objective of legislation should be to maximise the health and safety of both users and the wider community.

Specifically, the policy recommends the decriminalisation of drugs, recognition of the links between addictive drug use and broader social disadvantage, a pilot program to prescribe heroin to registered users, the regulated supply of cannabis at appropriate venues, consideration in the longer-term of legalising the cultivation of cannabis for personal use, and independent research into the effects of cannabis and other illegal drugs.

These proposals may sound radical, but they are arguably not fundamentally different in principle to the current Australian drugs policy based on harm minimisation philosophy.

In particular, the harm reduction component of that philosophy - which underpins our needle and syringe exchanges, methadone treatment programs, and the Kings Cross medically supervised injecting facility - could reasonably be extended to include some of the proposals described above.


It is also worth noting what the Greens policy doesn’t recommend. No reference is made, for example, to legalising hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine or methamphetamine, and no reference is made to selling cannabis or other illicit drugs to minors.

In March 2007, the Greens released a revised policy titled Drugs: Substance Use and Addiction which modified some of the earlier proposals. This policy again endorses an evidence-based harm minimisation approach which targets the health and social context of drug use.

Specifically, the policy recommends the establishment of an Australian Drugs Policy Institute to undertake research trials and evaluation of policy and treatment programs; the regulated use of cannabis for specified medical purposes; the replacement of criminal penalties for personal drug use with a system of civil sanctions; serious penalties for the supply and/or possession of commercial quantities of illegal drugs; serious penalties for driving while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs that impair cognitive or psychomotor skills; and increased availability of harm reduction programs, including needle and syringe exchanges, medically supervised injecting rooms, and a scientific trial of prescribed heroin to registered users.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University and is the co-author with Nick Dyrenfurth of Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press), and the author of a chapter on The Australian Greens and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the forthcoming Australia and Israel (Sussex Academic Press).

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