September 8th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Lessons of the influx of 'boat people'

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Northern Territory election: why the CLP lost

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: SA Parliament debates third Euthanasia Bill

TRADE: Making sense of trade policy

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Bleak House, The gravy boat, The rights of children

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA drugs summit takes predictable path

Letters: Teaching infrastructure

Letters: In praise of Serong

COMMENT: Preferential option for the family

QUEENSLAND: Red tape swamps fishing industry - FABA

INTERVIEW: Networking key to success: anti-euthanasia activist

Books: 'The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon', by Anthony Summers

Books: It Ain't Necessarily So, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, S. Robert Lichter

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WA drugs summit takes predictable path

by Richard Egan

News Weekly, September 8, 2001

One hundred delegates from around Western Australia met at Parliament House, Perth from August 13 to 17 at a Community Drug Summit called by Premier Geoff Gallop's Labor Government to "contribute to the formulation of long-term and strategic policies to address the illicit drug problem in Western Australia".

The delegates had been chosen from nearly one thousand applicants by a selection committee appointed by the Government. While all shades of the spectrum of community opinion were represented, there was an over-representation of those who believed that illicit drugs could be used "responsibly" for recreation and fun. This group, together with professional and academic drug law reformers and supporters of "harm minimisation" policies, formed a working majority at the Summit.

Prior to the Summit, nine issues papers had been prepared on various aspects of drug policy. Among many other proposals these papers canvassed the possibility of heroin prescription trials, supervised injecting facilities and loosening of cannabis laws.

Over 500 submissions were received from members of the public on the issues papers. Of these, 353 (70 per cent) explicitly rejected harm minimisation or drug liberalisation policies, with most of these submissions favouring a combination of prevention through education and early intervention and effective abstinence-oriented rehabilitation with the goal of a drug free society. (Seventy-four of these submissions referred to Sweden's success in reducing drug abuse as worthy of emulation.)

By contrast only 53 (10 per cent) submissions explicitly favoured the continuing or extension of harm minimisation measures such as needle exchanges or further liberalisation of drug laws. Of those submissions that commented explicitly on heroin injecting rooms, the ratio was 6:1 against injecting rooms (48 against, eight for); and on a heroin prescription trial, the ratio was nearly 5:1 against (28 against; six for).

During the first three-and-a-half days of the Summit delegates spent some time each day in one of nine working groups each given the task of producing five recommendations for consideration by the Summit as a whole. Voting on the recommendations took place during the final day-and-a-half of proceedings.

Though a total of 45 recommendations were passed by the Summit - most with over 90 votes out of 100 - media attention has focussed mostly on three controversial proposals which passed by much narrower margins.

The first of these calls for the WA Government "to provide a trial of heroin on prescription treatment [sic] that is subject to a detailed evaluation, involves full clinical and social support, and is targeted at people who have failed at other treatment and would not be likely to otherwise enter treatment". This passed by just 61 votes to 37.

However, the provision of heroin on prescription cannot be authorised by a State Government acting alone. Only the Commonwealth Government can authorise the importing of heroin for this purpose. Prime Minister John Howard has made it clear that he will not do so.

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley has stated that if he was Prime Minister his government would not oppose a heroin prescription trial requested by a State. However, official ALP policy states: "A Labor Government would consider a proposal from one or more States for a scientifically designed prescription trial, consistent with our international treaty obligations."

As the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board has repeatedly stated, the prescription of heroin would violate our obligations under the drug trafficking conventions. This either means that Mr Beazley is conning the Australian public when he says he would support a trial of heroin prescription, or that ALP policy is not to be considered binding when it refers to our international treaty obligations.

The second controversial recommendation relates to supervised injecting facilities. It passed by 63 votes to 35. However, because it was hotly contested in the working group dealing with this issue the recommendation is relatively weak. The recommendation does not propose that the WA Government set up a "supervised injection facility". Rather it merely recommends that the Government consider "the issue of supervised injecting services" in the light of various factors.

Firstly, as both Martin Hosek (from the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health) and Dr Ingrid van Beek (medical director of the Kings Cross injecting room) made clear, injecting rooms have only ever been set up in direct response to the problems associated with an open drug scene, where large numbers of users congregate and the problems of ambulance call-outs for overdoses and discarded needles are concentrated in a tight geographical area. No such open drug scene exists in Western Australia.

Secondly, the King's Cross trial has, as one of its purposes, to establish whether or not the European experience with injecting rooms can work in the Australian context. By law the trial can only run for 18 months, whereupon its organisers must report. The Community Drug Summit recommended that the WA Government consider injecting services "in the light of the King's Cross 18 month trial when these are available". In other words the WA Government should not even consider proposing an injecting service until at least November 2002.

The statistics presented by Dr van Beek on the King's Cross injecting room's first three months activity are not supportive of its usefulness. 831 registered users made 3363 visits in three months. This is an average of just four visits per user in three months. The highest incidence of visits per user is 80 times a month. As a heroin-dependent person is likely to inject three to four times each day, this means that all registered users are still injecting frequently elsewhere and the injecting facility is only helping with overdoses and discarded needles on an occasional basis.

The revelation by Dr van Beek that the facility is also accommodating binge users of cocaine, who are allowed to inject, circle the block, and then come in again to inject more cocaine, is alarming.

The recommendation suggests the possibility of "alternative models of supervised injecting services". It is important to note that neither the working group who put up this recommendation, nor the plenary session of the Summit that passed it, had any proposed model for injecting services before it other than the European/Kings Cross model which everyone agreed was not appropriate for Western Australia. If the Government is to come up with an alternative model, it will be sheer invention out of thin air.

Finally the Summit insisted that any proposed supervised injection service be set up "only with the support of local community opinion". Unfortunately an amendment to require a local referendum as the means of establishing local community opinion failed on a show of hands.

Nonetheless it would be tyrannical of the Government to impose an injecting facility on any neighbourhood in Western Australia without overwhelming local community support.

The start-up cost of the Kings Cross injecting facility is reported as being $4.8 million. If the Western Australian Government were to allocate anything like this amount to supervised injection facilities it could only do so at the expense of other, less controversial, recommendations that were passed at the Summit by overwhelming majorities.

These included provision for "treatment in a secure drug-free institution as an alternative to conventional incarceration for adults and juveniles" (passed 97 votes to two) and "culturally secure drug detoxification and rehabilitation for Aboriginal prisoners including the introduction of an Aboriginal therapeutic community within big metropolitan prisons and regional prisons with significant Aboriginal populations" (passed 99 votes to 0).

The third controversial recommendation passed by the Summit (72 votes to 27) was in favour of providing only civil penalties for both adults and children who "possess and cultivate small amounts of cannabis".

The recommendation makes a reference to "the option for cautioning and diversion" in relation to adults and "coercive treatment options, that include the opportunity for parents/carers to influence outcome for those under 18.

The Summit declined to adopt the Government's proposal to decriminalise "the cultivation of up to two plants, possession of up to 50 grams and use by adults on private property".

Western Australia has recently successfully tried out a diversionary system for first offences of possessing under 25 grams of cannabis. This is being extended State-wide. This program avoids the problem of first-time minor offenders getting a criminal record by using education sessions and drug testing to direct them away from further use of cannabis.

The Summit recommendation is vague and possibly contradictory. The reference to "civil penalties" suggests a system of fines for possession or cultivation similar to that operating in South Australia.

On the other hand the references to "diversion" for adults and "coercive treatment options" for children suggest that something stricter than the South Australian model is proposed.

However, if continual re-offending never amounts to a criminal offence, it is difficult to see this recommendation as anything other than a green light for cannabis cultivation and use.

The Community Drug Summit gave participants and observers more insight into the devastation drugs cause in the lives of many Western Australians. In amongst the raucous voices claiming that "drugs could be fun" were more authentic stories of broken hearts and wasted lives from drug use - a 20-year-old woman who discovered at the age of eight that her parents were heroin addicts; a young man whose older brother had died from a drug overdose after destroying his family through the violence and abuse associated with drug use; a 36-year-old Aboriginal grandmother who lost custody of her eight children during her six-year addiction to heroin and, now clean, is caring for the child of her drug-addicted daughter.

If the Government focuses on the very positive recommendations which attracted near-universal support from delegates with such varied views and backgrounds, then Western Australia might just move forward in addressing and reducing this devastation.

However, if the Summit turns out just to have been a stunt to engineer apparent support for the Government's glamour proposals of heroin prescription trials, grow-your-own cannabis and supervised injecting facilities, then the taxpayer could have saved the money and just bought the Government a $2 rubber stamp.

  • Richard Egan, WA President of the National Civic Council, was one of the delegates at the WA Community Drug Summit

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