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NSW Drug Summit post mortem

By Robert Griew and Bernadette Keeffe - posted Saturday, 15 May 1999

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 level.

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 becoming defensive.

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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About the Authors

Robert Griew is the CEO of the AIDS Council of NSW and participated in the NSW Drug Summit.

Bernadette Keeffe is a media officer at the AIDS Council of NSW and participated in the NSW Drug Summit.

Related Links
AIDS Council of NSW
NSW Drug Summit
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