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Two more milestones in the failed war on drugs

By Sandra Kanck - posted Wednesday, 2 July 2008

For those interested in drug laws based on health rather than criminality, June 2008 saw the passing of two anniversaries of note, one at the South Australian level, and the other internationally.

In June 2002, the South Australian Drug Summit was held, and the final communiqué recommended a heroin prescription trial and further consideration of the use of cannabis for medical and therapeutic purposes, recommendations which were strongly supported.

Six years on, neither of these has happened and, as memories of the Summit recede, the likelihood of their implementation decreases. Yet recommendations that received divided support in the Summit, such as criminalising the supply of precursor chemicals, are what the Rann Government is acting on.


The South Australian Parliament now has before it an intellectually challenging bill - the Controlled Substances (Controlled Drugs, Precursors and Cannabis) Amendment Bill. Despite the Drugs Summit stressing the need for a scientific and evidence-based approach to drugs, clause 14, in relation to penalties other than for cannabis, cannabis resin or cannabis oil, instructs as follows:

… the degree of physical or other harm generally associated with the consumption of that particular type of controlled drug, as compared with other types of controlled drugs, is not a relevant consideration and the court must determine the penalty on the basis that controlled drugs are all categorised equally as very harmful!

So much for a scientific and evidence-based approach.

Given that so much of the Rann Government’s actions on drugs run counter to so many of the outcomes of the Drug Summit, it is not surprising that the Summit’s sixth anniversary went unremarked.

But the other unremarked anniversary was ten years ago.

Between June 8 and 10, 1998, a special session of the UN adopted the slogan “A drug-free world, we can do it” with that target to be reached after a ten-year war on drugs.


So here we are ten years on and that war has failed - abjectly. It has failed because the mindset that led to that conference is one that treats drug use as a moral and a criminal issue and not the health issue that it is.

At the time, a letter from hundreds of MPs, doctors, artists, mayors, lawyers, judges, journalists and academics from 40 countries signed a letter to the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, expressing concerns about where the “war on drugs” was leading us.

Fifty Australians signed the statement, including former Premiers John Cain, Neville Wran and Rupert Hamer, observing that “… true surrender is when fear and inertia combine to shut off debate, suppress critical analysis, and dismiss all alternatives to current policies”.

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About the Author

Sandra Kanck is the former parliamentary leader of the South Australian Democrats. She is national president of Sustainable Population Australia, SA president of Friends of the ABC, President of the Australian Democrats (SA Division Inc.) and an Executive Member of the SA Council for Civil Liberties.

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