Western Australia: Gallop's drug 'compromise'by Richard EganNews Weekly
, December 15, 2001
The Premier of Western Australia, Dr Geoff Gallop, has tabled in State Parliament his Government’s response to the recommendations of the Community Drug Summit held in Perth in August. The release of this response had been promised for October, but was deliberately held back until after the Federal election.
The three most controversial recommendations from the Summit called on the Government to consider supervised injecting services, to support a trial of heroin on prescription, and to soften the cannabis laws in relation to cultivation and possession.
On supervised injecting services, the Government’s response states:
"Given that the current pattern of drug use in Western Australia does not support the need for supervised injecting services at this time, such a service will not be implemented. The Government will continue to monitor the developments of similar services in other states and countries around the world. It will also monitor the Western Australian context, including differences in demographics, patterns of drug use and the emerging needs of Western Australian drug-users. The Government recognises the importance of community opinion and support and recognises the importance of ongoing local consultation in this regard."
This decision is welcome in the light of the latest figures from Sydney’s King’s Cross injecting room, where 1,503 registered users have made a total of 11,273 visits to the injecting room during its first six months of operations. This is an average of one visit per registered user every 24 days. It has also been revealed by the medical director, Ingrid van Beek, that 47 per cent of injections are using cocaine rather than heroin, and that the overdose rate is one in every 128 injections. This may be attributable to the use of the injecting facility by high-risk-taking cocaine binge-users chasing a sustained rush by multiple injections of cocaine in a short period. Apparently users are only allowed to inject once each time they enter the room, but will be re-admitted immediately after circling the block.
In the rest of Australia, overdose rates are dropping due to the heroin drought, without any rash experiments with facilitating drug use through injecting rooms.
The rejection of the Summit’s injecting room proposal is a major victory for anti-drug campaigners. It reflects both their success in the Summit itself in qualifying the injecting services recommendation with references to Perth’s different demographics and patterns of injecting drug use, and the sheer volume of letters sent to the Premier and ALP members on the drug issue.
Concerning heroin on prescription, the Government stated its support for a trial but added that "the Government accepts that in the absence of Commonwealth Government support, a medically supervised prescription trial cannot currently be considered an option for the treatment of heroin addiction". This issue is effectively dead for the term of the third Howard Government.
So much for the good news.
To redeem itself as a radical drug law reformer, the Government has accepted with gusto the recommendation to soften the laws on possession and cultivation of cannabis. A Ministerial Working Party on Drug Law Reform will be established, with a brief to report to Cabinet by March 2002 on how this will be done. In the meantime, the Government will radically extend the existing cautioning system, which applies at present to first-time offenders found in possession of 25 grams or less of cannabis, allowing them to undergo an educational session and, in some cases treatment, rather than being charged with a criminal offence.
The extension will apparently cover second and subsequent offences (no limit to how many) and cater for the cultivation of up to two cannabis plants. According to Australian Drug Law Reform Association President, Jason Meotti, 25 grams of cannabis could produce up to 250 cannabis cigarettes or 375 cannabis cones. Two plants when harvested could produce up to 900 grams of cannabis.
These provisions clearly extend beyond personal use to traffickable amounts. It is ironic that the Western Australian Premier made his announcement the same week that South Australia moved to reduce the number of cannabis plants permitted (subject only to fines) in that State to one, with a ban on the more potent indoor hydroponic plants.
It appears likely that the bikie gangs squeezed out of business by this move in South Australia will look to Western Australia to form new networks of households growing cannabis for export to the Eastern States.
In a further irony, the Western Australian Parliament was also debating that same week new legislation directed at breaking the power of outlaw motorcycle gangs in Western Australia.
Other recommendations of the Summit accepted by the Government may lead to increased co-ordination and expansion of treatment and prevention programs. However, the effectiveness of these measures will continue to be undermined by the entrenched dominance of the harm minimisation philosophy in much of the drug services sector in Western Australia.