Australian Prime Ministers Ousts Reformers from Drug Panel, Shows "Zero Tolerance" for Contrary Opinions 3/23/01

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Australian Prime Minister John Howard this week purged his main drug advisory panel of prominent harm reduction advocates, leading to charges from the opposition Labor Party and drug reformers that Howard wants to create a body wedded to his own zero-tolerance views on drug policy.

Alex Wodak, director of Drug and Alcohol Services at St. Vincent's Hospital, told DRCNet that Howard and Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) chair Salvation Army Major Brian Watters were trying to "organize a zero-tolerance cheer squad." But, said Wodak, even with the panel's new complexion, most members "regard zero tolerance as a fantasy, not a drug policy."

Howard dumped four of fifteen panel members -- a fifth quit -- replacing direct representatives of youth, drug users, schools and families affected by drugs. Tony Trimingham, the outspoken founder of Family Drug Support, got the boot, as did harm reductionist Wesley Noffs. Jude Byrne, who represented drug users, was also dropped (or "emancipated," as Wodak put it).

Howard also removed Karen Hart, former head of the national School Principals Association and an advocate of realistic, practical drug education in the schools. Professor Wayne Hall, head of the University of New South Wales' National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, resigned.

The Reverend Bill Crews of Uniting Church was among many the many drug policy shareholders to blast the moves. "To my way of thinking, Tony Trimingham was one of the best people to come along in 30 years in this area," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "By taking him out of an advocacy role and others like him who favor a harm-minimization approach, all we are doing is condemning society to more of the same."

"Just at a time when society is starting to realize that we need different approaches and we are lurching toward an understanding that new ways have to be tried, new ways like harm minimization, the Prime Minister is moving the other way," said Crews.

Annie Madden of the Australian Intravenous League, which represents drug consumers, told the Australian newspaper that her group was dismayed by the changes. "Without adequate consumer representation, how can the council possibly reflect the needs of the people most affected by illicit drugs?" she asked.

Prime Minister Howard, stung by the attacks, defended himself. "Any chance that members of the ANCD are chosen because they support one particular approach to drug policy runs contrary to the central ethos of the council," he angrily told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Labor spokeswoman for health Jenny Macklin took issue with Howard's explanation. "The drug debate needs to involve a variety of voices and a variety of solutions, not just those the Prime Minister wants to hear. This is the Prime Minister at his arrogant worst. His claim that the proposed appointments add to the range of expertise on the council is clearly incorrect. Zero tolerance now dominates the committee," she told the Morning Herald.

But newly appointed members shrank from the zero-tolerance label, and Dr. Wodak told DRCNet "most members of the previous committee and most members of the new ANCD strongly support evidence-based harm minimization."

Some new members certainly wanted to talk the talk. David Crosbie, of the Victorian Odyssey House program, an abstinence-based program, objected to being labeled as zero tolerance. "I think it's time we dropped these unhelpful zero tolerance versus harm minimization labels altogether," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I don't care whether the Prime Minister is zero tolerance or harm reduction, as long as we spend the money in a balanced way."

New member Garth Popple, administrator of the We Help Ourselves drug user's program in New South Wales, was described by sources close to him as "distressed" at being given the zero-tolerance tag. "Garth's concern is that the cause of harm minimization has been damaged," they said.

Two more of the newly appointed members, Anne Bressington, founder of the South Australia DrugBeat program, and Nick Gill, manager of the Drug and Alcohol Association in Alice Springs, are described in press accounts as zero tolerance and abstinence-based treatment advocates.

The final new member, Professor John Saunders of Queensland, rejected the hardliner label. "I wouldn't describe myself as zero tolerance," he told the Age. "While abstinence is a noble goal, we have to be realistic."

The Australian National Council on Drugs was set up by the Howard government after it was deluged with criticism for blocking proposed heroin trials in 1997, and was supposed to be a forum for advice to the government from non-governmental sources, such as clinicians, researchers, police, educators, and drug users' and families' groups.

"Its achievements to date have been, well, modest," Dr. Wodak told DRCNet. "There is potentially an important role for an independent, non-government advisory committee made up of diverse experts, but this requires a chair unambiguously committed to evidence-based harm minimization and a Prime Minister who is prepared to consider advice not to his liking."

Despite what Wodak described as polls "showing a high level of discomfort" with Howard's hard-line drug policies, the Prime Minister will kick off a new anti-drug campaign on March 25th, the anniversary of "the mother of all drug treaties," the United Nations Single Convention on Drugs.

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Issue #178, 3/23/01 Mexico's President Fox Talks Legalization, Becomes Second Western Hemisphere Head of State to Break With Drug War Consensus | Sentencing Commission Sets Harsh New Ecstasy Penalties, Panel Ignores Scientific, Medical Testimony, Heeds Only Drug Warriors | Supreme Court Bars Drug-Testing of Expectant Mothers in South Carolina Case | See No Evil: New Jersey State Officials Sat on Racial Profiling Data for Years, Testimony at Hearings Contradicts Earlier Accounts, Points Finger at Verniero | New Mexico Post Mortem: Modest Reforms Enacted as Legislative Session Closes, Major Components of Johnson Package Await Another Time | DRCNet Interview: Dave Miller, Legislative Liaison for New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson | Puerto Rico Update: Drug Czar Office Created, Collazo Bows Out, McCaffrey Signs on as Advisor | Australian Prime Ministers Ousts Reformers from Drug Panel, Shows "Zero Tolerance" for Contrary Opinions | Alert: Drop the Rock (New York State) | The Reformer's Calendar | Errata: Switzerland | Editorial: The Next Wave of the Drug Debate
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