Heroin in Australia, Part Two: A Conversation with Michael Moore, ACT Health Minister 4/30/99

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Last week, we spoke with Brian McConnell of Family and Friends for Drug Law Reform on the state of drug policy in Australia (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/088.html#ffdlr). This week we spoke with Michael Moore, Health Minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Moore has been a key advocate for harm reduction policies in Australia, and instrumental in engaging his colleagues in the debate over drug policy in general. He is the creator of the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform, the inaugural president of the Drug Law Reform Foundation, and a founding member of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform. In 1994, he was awarded the Justice Gerald Le Dain Award for achievement in the field of law from the Drug Policy Foundation.

Moore has been a vocal proponent for a heroin maintenance experiment that would provide addicts with heroin under clinical supervision. In addition, his most recent initiative would permit health workers to set up "safe injection rooms" where intravenous drug users can inject their drugs with clean needles and without fear of criminal prosecution, and receive access to treatment. Mr. Moore spoke with us by phone from his home in Canberra, ACT.

WOL: How are you perceived by the public and other politicians when you call for heroin trials, safe injection rooms and other harm reduction policies?

MOORE: My first election in 1989 was as a prohibitionist. I was appointed chair of a select committee on HIV, illegal drugs and prostitution. I was responsible for setting up probably the most liberal prostitution laws in the western world -- they are still in place and giving us very little trouble. Then I proceeded down this path in terms of drugs. As I changed my views, and did so very publicly, every other politician that I knew said I could never be re-elected with this stance. Since then, I've been re-elected three times and more than a hundred other Members of Parliament have joined the parliamentary group, and they come from right across our political spectrum. I'm an Independent member, and we have Liberal members, Labor members, Greens and Democrats.

WOL: What is the status of safe injecting rooms in the ACT, and what has been your involvement?

MOORE: As Minister for Health I put the proposal to cabinet, have gained approval of cabinet, and have put one piece of legislation and a motion before legislative assembly. The legislation I put up is to protect workers from civil liability, from being sued if something goes wrong other than in cases of negligence. And the motion is to get the approval of the Assembly to proceed because I am a member of a minority government.

WOL: Why are safe injection rooms needed?

MOORE: We know that the methods we are using to deal with illicit drugs are not working. We believe safe injection rooms will reduce the spread of disease. We believe they will improve the health of the community as well as the health of the individual drug users. But because we are not absolutely positive of that, we want to insure we have an appropriate evaluation conducted by the Australian National University. So we are conducting it as a scientific trial. The scientific trial also makes it work within the context of the international treaty.

WOL: So the ACT can proceed with safe injection rooms, even without the approval of the federal Commonwealth government?

MOORE: There are some complications. There was some debate as to whether we have an international treaty that would prohibit this, the UN International Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance. Our federal government has responsibility for international treaties, and where they've signed an international treaty, the states' or territories' laws must comply with that treaty. We do have legal advice that we can proceed with safe injection rooms, provided we do it by directive to the Director of Public Prosecutions so that they won't prosecute in the public interest.

WOL: How does heroin maintenance fit into a harm reduction or harm minimization strategy?

MOORE: When somebody becomes semi-dependent on heroin, they have four choices. Remember, they are becoming semi-dependent, they are really enjoying the use of their heroin, but they are needing more money. They can try prostitution, they can try crime, they can make huge demands on their family, or they can find three or four other people willing to use heroin, sell to them and cream the top off. And it's that fourth choice that almost all of them make. So those four other people find sixteen, those sixteen people find sixty-four more. So what we have is a network marketing system akin to Amway or Avon. We know that it is the second most effective marketing system in the world.

If you run a heroin trial and there is no increase in harm, we then have a policy option for a fifth choice and it's the fifth choice that is critical. The fifth choice is that instead of doing all of those things, a semi-dependent person who needs more and more money can go to a clinic and say, "I'm semi-dependent, I need heroin, what can I do?" At that point we can provide heroin and we can also provide what we are interested in, and that is the treatment and to reach out to them when they are ready to move away from heroin. It has all those advantages, but the most important of all is that they don't use that forth choice. They don't drag other people into the network and expand the black market. It's quite a persuasive argument, isn't it?

WOL: What needs to change politically for the heroin maintenance trials to take place?

Minister Moore: I think that we will have a heroin trial in Australia, and it will happen in one of two ways: either the Prime Minister will change his mind, or we will change the Prime Minister. I don't mind which it is, provided it happens quickly.

WOL: Should abstinence be the ultimate goal of any heroin trial?

Minister Moore: The critical part is to not get an increase in harm. Our goal is to undermine the black market. It's not to do with whether the individual is abstinent or not abstinent. Every policy option we have in front of us fails to do that, to undermine the black market. Surely even blind Freddy can see that the critical issue for us is to undermine the black market.

The trouble is, the rhetoric gets caught up in puritanical approaches, judgmental approaches. It gets caught up in the notion that the only treatment is a cure. Yet we don't apply that to diabetes or asthma, we don't apply that to most medical treatments. But for puritanical reasons we do apply it to drugs. It is interesting to observe how successful we are with abstinence programs. But it is certainly not the key question. The key question is do we increase harm, do we reduce harm; if we have not increased harm then we have a policy option to undermine the black market.

WOL: Are you optimistic about the future of Australian drug policy?

MOORE: There is no doubt in my mind that Australia will continue with harm minimization. We will trial a provision of heroin to dependent users. The reason is that when we look around the world, we see that harm minimization works best. When you cut through the hype, when you look at it in an academic way, a heroin trial has the best potential for undermining the black market. I do realize there are certain groups that disagree with me, like our Prime Minister. But then, he took advice from the FBI -- say no more.

(Read about Australia's long-running drug policy debates on heroin maintenance, safe injecting rooms and other issues, in DRCNet's special report by Greg Ewing from last summer, archived at http://www.drcnet.org/wol/049.html#australia. The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation is online at http://www.ozemail.com.au/~petercle/druglaw/. Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform can be found online at http://www.adca.org.au/ffdlr/. The ACT government home page is online at http://www.act.gov.au/government/.)

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Issue #89, 4/30/99 Arizona Supreme Court Study: Proposition 200 Has Saved the State Millions | Renting While Non-White | Canada: Heroin Prescription Experiment Debated in Parliament | Canadian Police Chiefs Call for Decriminalization of Marijuana Possession | Swiss Panel Calls for Decriminalization of Cannabis Possession, Sales | Heroin in Australia, Part Two: A Conversation with Michael Moore, ACT Health Minister | Government's Drug Test Ruled Inadequate, Todd McCormick Remains Free Pending Trial | Media Alert: May Issue of Harper's Magazine Cover Story: Good Drugs, Bad Drugs | Patti Smith to Play NYC's Bowery Ballroom to Benefit the Drug Policy Foundation | Forfeiture Reform Conference in DC, Justice Reform Protest in NYC and Nationwide | Editorial: Arizonans Ignore Rhetoric, Reap Benefits
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