Record drug busts do not save lives or reduce harm


Australian police have set yet another record with the latest drug bust: ice with an estimated value of $900 million has been seized. But what does that mean? Is it proof that police are reducing illicit drugs in Australia, or simply an indication of the growing flood?

The mainstream media can’t resist the headlines. Take a look:


Screenshot of report on Nunawading drug bust
But the headlines mark another false step in the war on drugs, according to a response in The Conversation by Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Macquarie University, , and Senior Lecturer of Addiction at Edith Cowan University, .

‘As several decades of failed war on drugs policing has demonstrated, provided there is strong consumer demand, and the capacity to produce drugs cheaply, reliably and profitably overseas, organised crime groups are likely to continue to fill any gaps in the supply chain that law enforcement interventions create.

Given the manifest inability of law enforcement to control the illicit drugs trade, it is worth questioning why so much emphasis is placed on law enforcement over other, more effective, evidence-based drug policies.’

They go on to say there’s an imbalance in Australia’s three-pillar approach to illicit drugs – supply reduction, demand reduction, and harm reduction – as highlighted in Australia21’s latest report on the issue.

Here’s how Martin and Bright put it:

AFP Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan, National Manager Organised Crime and Cyber, said police were best-placed to stem the supply of illicit drugs by targeting organised crime syndicates, but he added:

ice methamphetamine seized at nunawading‘Our law enforcement effort is coordinated with the health and education sectors, who are focused on demand reduction.’

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Crime Command, Stephen Fontana, also recognised the need for a holistic approach – and went a step further.

“As long as there is demand, there will be a market and we need to stop the cycle which affects the entire community.”


Public opinion is changing

It’s good to hear leading journalists questioning the impact of the record drug bust, as they did the next day on ABC Radio Sydney’s Drive program with Richard Glover.
In the Journo’s Forum, Richard Glover discussed the issue with Jessica Irvine who is a senior economics writer for Fairfax Media, John Lyons who is Associate Editor of Digital Content for The Australian and Stephen Long, a business and finance specialist with the ABC.

Jessica Irvine SMHJessica: It is a small percentage of what is coming into the country and one wonders if the money is not better spent in the areas treating people and helping people and outreach to people who have been affected and who have taken up the drug…

 John: The war on drugs is not really working… Mick Palmer, the former head of the AFP and several other former judges et cetera said it a couple of weeks ago, that the current approach wasn’t working… Education is so important, like young kids these days have been educated about smoking… and things like drink driving… I say to my son, you never know – whatever the bikie decided to put into that pill is what’s going to go into your brain, it’s not like it’s a generic drug. And so you’re relying on some sleazebag in some factory or dungeon making this sort of crap and I did some stories for the Herald years ago and they were cutting the heroin with Ajax, with battery acid and people were just dying, falling over and dying…

Stephen Long ABCStephen: And we’re not even looking at the sources of domestic supply, because the problem with this drug is that it’s a synthetic drug that is really cheap and easy to manufacture, so I agree that the answers have to be focused on education and treatment because you’re never going to stop the supply being there.
richard glover ABCRichard: Too much money in it. I mean part of the story this week was the incredible differential between what this stuff costs in China and apparently we’re happy to pay more than anybody for it…

John: But I think it’s got to be people with credibility, who’ve been on drugs, who’ve come of it – they’re the ones the kids will listen to, not their parents so much.


Busting the ‘junkie’ stereotype

This week another drug user has taken up the challenge, speaking out about their own experience.

In a powerful comment in The Age, James Rowe describes how heroin made his life bearable at the same time as nearly killing him.

He busts apart the stereotype of the ‘junkie’ who is a drain on society.

‘I built a career in higher education (in marked contrast to tabloid morality plays in which pathetic junkies are responsible for all manner of social ills).

‘We are often told that the drug user makes the “choice” to stick a needle in their arm. Nobody forced them to start on the “slippery slope” to drug dependence, poverty, criminality and subsequent marginalisation. However, I suggest that, to exercise choice, a person must have two viable alternatives from which to choose. When the only alternative to the medicating properties of drugs is ending their life to end their suffering, can this use be condemned as a “free choice”?’

Drug equipment from the medically supervised injecting centre at Kings Cross in Sydney.
James says it was only when he was able to be open about heroin that he could channel energy into ending his dependence.

‘In early 2015, we “legitimised” my fortnightly heroin use (budgeted in family householding). While that might seem weird, it was the deceit tearing us apart, so we took it out of the equation. Having permission to “use” gave me the “space” to stop using. It was the perspective it allowed, without wasting energy sneaking about and diverting scarce dollars, which enabled reflection, consideration and the resolve, for the first time in many years, to take a deep breath and leave it.’

He has added his voice to the chorus of people calling for a medically supervised drug injecting centre at North Richmond in Melbourne.

‘I am acutely aware of the trauma that overdose inflicts outside of the victim. Children lose parents and vice versa. My mother saw my near-death first hand – the blue lips, shallow breath and unconsciousness to which I have subjected too many loved ones.

‘Trauma, mental ill-health, housing insecurity, poverty and so on are not the fault of the individual in a society increasingly aware of how many people are left behind and ignored in the minority’s pursuit of wealth. They do increase the attraction of drugs that can numb the severity of bitter reality. A medically supervised injecting centre, staffed by medical and social service professionals, will not only save lives and reduce trauma, it will be the first step of many to an existence in which drugs are not needed.’

Ice crystal methamphetamine hidden in floorboards at nunawading AFP photo


The need for drug law reform can no longer be ignored

Changing the public narrative is the first step towards changing the political approach. Until then, the huge police effort to stop drug trafficking will be constantly made meaningless by the lack of funding for medical and social strategies aimed at harm minimisation among many ordinary Australians who buy drugs.


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