Drug policy is becoming a major campaign issue in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW). With an ongoing, highly publicized "epidemic" of methamphetamine use under way and elections now less than 10 days away, the NSW Green Party is calling for the decriminalization of drug possession -- even the dreaded ice, as meth is commonly referred to Down Under -- and Liberal and Labor party foes are attacking them for it.
Although Greens hold only a handful of seats in the state parliament, by throwing their support to the governing Labor Party in some key districts, they could end up holding the balance of power in the Upper House. The NSW Greens' leading Upper House candidate, Lee Rhiannon, has been the party's main spokesperson in the increasingly nasty exchanges over drug policy.
The Greens' position on the decriminalization of drug possession is not ad hoc. It reflects the party's formal platform on drug policy, adopted last October after extensive consultations with party members. The platform also calls for the stronger embrace of harm reduction measures and the decriminalization of marijuana growing for personal use.
While the Greens' drug platform is not new, Rhiannon's public reiteration of it Monday ignited a firestorm of criticism and mischaracterization. The Daily Telegraph blurted to its readers that the Greens were "effectively saying that ice junkies should be free to buy as much of the deadly substance as they want." The Daily Telegraph also described the Green position that decriminalizing drug possession was less dangerous than prohibition as "a bizarre defense."
Liberal leader Peter Debnam was also caustic, writing in his blog: "Any Member of Parliament who thinks we should decriminalize drugs, including 'Ice', should take a good hard look at themselves, do the community a favour, and resign" and "This drug is death to young people and it is undermining a whole generation."
While Debnam accused the Greens and the Labor Party of cooking up some sort of "ice deal," there was little sign of that from Labor Premier Morris Iemma. He responded to the Green drug platform by saying: "It is just an absurd, ridiculous and disgusting policy." Any MP who supported such a policy was "completely out of touch with reality," he said.
Just to make things perfectly clear, Labor Party secretary Mark Arbib added that while Labor was willing to cut an electoral deal with the Greens, it does not endorse Green drug policy. "There will be no watering down of the (Labor) party's tough drug laws or positions on other social issues," he said.
But the Greens are fighting back, against both the political attacks and the yellow journalism. "The allegation in today's Daily Telegraph that the Greens policy would allow people to buy unlimited amounts of the deadly drug 'ice' is totally false," Rhiannon said in a Tuesday statement. "The Greens policy does not support unlimited supply of any drug, least of all crystal methamphetamine. This attack on the Greens is an election scare tactic which will distract from the urgent task of protecting young people from ice. The Greens do not support drug use and our policy does not condone people using the new drug known as ice."
Rhiannon also went after Premier Iemma for both failure and hypocrisy. "The Iemma government has failed to deal with the increased use of ice," she said. "The use of crystal methamphetamine has increased during the term of the Iemma/Carr government. There are now more than 17,700 regular methamphetamine users and 14,700 dependent methamphetamine users in Sydney and the number is growing rapidly," she noted.
"The drug policies of the Labor government are failing to deal with the epidemic," Rhiannon continued. "What is needed are prevention initiatives that educate the target populations to the dangers of using the drug and effective and accessible treatment programs for dependent and addicted users."
In fact, as the Greens noted in a Wednesday press release, Labor actually quietly supports many Green harm reduction notions and treatment and diversion programs for meth users. "The Premier is quick to put the boot into the Greens for our approach to ice. But the reality is Labor has instituted innovative ice programs, based on the harm minimization principles advocated by the Greens," Rhiannon said.
Among those programs is a stimulant treatment program at two hospitals, the safe injection room at Kings Cross, and the "MERIT" program that diverts meth users into treatment instead of jail. "If we really want to make NSW ice free, these programs need to be expanded and receive a massive increase in funding," said Rhiannon. "Premier Iemma should shout these initiatives from the rooftops instead of hiding behind his tough "law and order" policies. It appears that he is more concerned about a political backlash. To successfully eradicate ice politicians must be willing to take action that may be at first unpopular. Without brave policy from government, ice will continue to wreak havoc in our society."
Perhaps Debnam, Arbib and Iemma should listen to prominent Australian physician Dr. Alex Wodak's interview last year with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Among Wodak's quotes of note: "Prohibition didn't work in America in the 1920s and it won't work now."