UN Narcotics Board, Prime Minister Pressure Australian States on Safe-Injecting Rooms 12/17/99

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Peter Watney and DRCNet

Last week, the Australian Capitol Territory government approved plans to set up a trial safe-injecting room in their state, but harm reduction advocates had little leisure to savor the victory. Before the logistical planning could get underway, a sudden show of temper from the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board this week has put the project -- along with similar trials planned for Victoria and New South Wales -- in peril.

In a letter to Australia's ambassador to the United Nations, INCB president Antonio Martins warned that, "By permitting injection rooms, the government could be considered to be facilitating in the commission of possession and use crimes, as well as other criminal offences including drug trafficking," according to excerpts published Wednesday (12/15) in the Canberra Times. The letter went on to hint that Australia's role as a host of the 2000 summer Oympics could be tarnished if the trials go forward.

The letter was followed up by Prime Minister John Howard, who wrote to the governments of the ACT, Victoria and NSW and asked them to consider scrapping their plans for medically supervised safe-injection rooms. Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Tasmania was being drawn into the fray, as its multi-million dollar pharmaceutical opiate industry could be threatened by INCB actions against Australia.

But so far, the renegade states appear to be hanging tough. Andrew Refshauge, Deputy Premier of NSW has reaffirmed that the proposed Sydney safe-injection trial will proceed as planned. Victorian Health Minister John Thwaites has said the project in his state will also move forward. And Kate Carnell, Chief Minister of the ACT, said that while she is willing and anxious to discuss the matter with the Commonwealth Government, legal advice has confirmed that a trial would not violate either the letter or the spirit of international treaties or the UN drug conventions.

The law in question states that countries may make exceptions to conventions requiring drug prohibition in the case of clinical trials and in order to avert serious threats to the public health.

Not everyone is hopeful that the matter will be resolved in the states' favor. Ian Matthews, former managing editor of the Canberra Times and co-author of the book, "Drugs Policy -- Fact, Fiction and the Future," told The Week Online that he's concerned that a safe-injecting room trial might not be approved on the basis of medical research, and said that whether the social and criminal outcomes could be reviewed in a scientific manner and thus constitute scientific research, was in his opinion a fragile question.

Matthews did point out, however, that Prime Minister Howard only makes use of International Treaties and Conventions when they agree with his prejudices, and has on several occasions affirmed his Government's duty to put the interests of the Australian people first.

Howard's prejudices against harm reduction and in favor of US-style "zero-tolerance" drug polices are well documented. Last year he invited FBI chief Louis Freeh to Australia to discuss law enforcement approaches to drug abuse, and he has publicly condemned the NSW and Victorian governments' safe-injecting room proposals.

The INCB's distaste for harm reduction is equally well known. In its annual report last year, it criticized Switzerland's heroin prescription program and warned against other countries that might consider adopting similar measures. The INCB would also be the key to punishing Tasmania's pharmaceutical opiate producers, since its powers include the international regulation of such industries. Similar threats are widely thought to have cowed the Australian government into abandoning its own plans for a heroin prescription trial last year.

You can read about safe-injecting rooms and other harm reduction initiatives on the Lindesmith Center web site at http://www.lindesmith.org. The International Narcotics Control Board is online at http://www.incb.org.

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Issue #119, 12/17/99 Gore Briefly Supports Access to Medical Marijuana, Then Backpedals | Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy Receives Major Support | Interview with Dr David Lewis | DEA Approves Hemp Cultivation Permit in Hawaii | Alaska Marijuana Initiative | Poll Finds Most Blacks, Majority of Whites Believe Law Enforcement Targets Minorities | ACLU Condemns Shooting of Denver Man in No-Knock Raid | UN Narcotics Board, Prime Minister Pressure Australian States on Safe-Injecting Rooms | Grams' Son to Face Misdemeanor Charges | Record Number of Drug Prisoners in California | Mendocino Decriminalization Initiative Needs Volunteers | California Counties Using New Law to Decriminalize Needle Exchange | Job Listing in San Francisco | Editorial: At the End of the American Century
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