Australia's top national crime-fighting body, the National Crime Authority (NCA), last week issued a report saying it could not win the war on drugs and calling for a trial program in which heroin users could obtain their drug from a government-owned "heroin bank." Prime Minister John Howard, who has blocked previous heroin maintenance efforts, immediately denounced the idea, but has since been besieged by an army of the plan's proponents.

In its "Commentary on Organized Crime 2000," the NCA said the government must consider options "previously deemed unpalatable," such as treating heroin addiction through a medicalized supply, "subject to the supervision of a treating doctor and supplied from a repository that is government controlled."

The NCA vowed to wage unrelenting war on drug traffickers, but admitted that drug trafficking, money laundering, and related organized crime were beyond its capacity to prevent using current measures. NCA chairman Gary Crooke conceded that the heroin bank approach was "pretty radical", but argued that trafficking had "grown exponentially" and the profits had "almost grown beyond comprehension."

"Everything should be considered, nothing should be rejected, we've got a terrible problem here on our hands and the essence of that approach is to attack the profit motive," Crooke told reporters. "If something can be done to combat this enormous opportunity

Australia's top national crime-fighting body, the National Crime Authority (NCA), last week issued a report saying it could not win the war on drugs and calling for a trial program in which heroin users could obtain their drug from a government-owned "heroin bank." Prime Minister John Howard, who has blocked previous heroin maintenance efforts, immediately denounced the idea, but has since been besieged by an army of the plan's proponents.

In its "Commentary on Organized Crime 2000," the NCA said the government must consider options "previously deemed unpalatable," such as treating heroin addiction through a medicalized supply, "subject to the supervision of a treating doctor and supplied from a repository that is government controlled."

The NCA vowed to wage unrelenting war on drug traffickers, but admitted that drug trafficking, money laundering, and related organized crime were beyond its capacity to prevent using current measures. NCA chairman Gary Crooke conceded that the heroin bank approach was "pretty radical", but argued that trafficking had "grown exponentially" and the profits had "almost grown beyond comprehension."

"Everything should be considered, nothing should be rejected, we've got a terrible problem here on our hands and the essence of that approach is to attack the profit motive," Crooke told reporters. "If something can be done to combat this enormous opportunity to make profit and to control a price perhaps that is one of the many matters worthy of consideration."

Prime Minister Howard needed little time to consider. The same day the NCA released its report, Howard told parliament that "while ever this government is in office and while ever I am prime minister of this country, there will be no heroin trial." He also accused Cooke of sending "a surrender signal" in the fight against drugs.

Howard deputy Peter Costello also took a swipe at the NCA, basically telling it to butt out. "My view is that the National Crime Authority should be fighting crime and it ought to be leaving policy matters to the elected representatives," Costello told the Herald Sun. But the national government's strong negative response has stirred up a potent reaction. Leading Australian drug experts, the Australian Medical Association, newspaper editorial boards, and political figures and prosecutors across the land have rushed to support the NCA's recommendation.

Melbourne's The Age newspaper lambasted the prime minister's "opportunism and straight-out denial" in an August 10th editorial. "Hard drugs are bad," the editorial read. "The law says so. Society agrees. But lives are being lost and even greater numbers of lives are being damaged or ruined under the current legal regime. This is not the best we can do. This newspaper does not argue for liberalization as a blanket policy," the editorialists made clear. "It should be applied only as a way of lessening the effects of drugs on individuals and the wider community. That is why the NCA's proposals deserve to be heard, debated, and considered in a genuine fashion."

The Australian Medical Association also backed the proposal. "If the crime authority is saying this is something we should try, if the medical profession and the experts involved in drug dependence are saying this is something we should try, then I believe it is the responsibility of the government to give it a go," association president Kerryn Phelps told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Australia's grand old man of drug policy, David Penington, who formerly headed the Drug Advisory Council in Victoria, accused Prime Minister Howard of being held captive by yes-men for refusing to consider a heroin trial. Howard is getting his information "from people who want to please his own ears, people who have no experience in the material they're advising on," Penington told The Australian. "He only looks at the facts which support that view and he's not in a position to evaluate the details of trials."

Dr. Gabrielle Bammer, who designed a heroin trial in the Australia Capital Territories four years ago, only to see it blocked by Howard, was cheered by the NCA's proposal. "Since the mid-1990s, a number of reputable groups across the medical, criminal and social spectrum have looked at this issue seriously," she told The Age. "People aren't necessarily convinced that it will work, but I think they are convinced there is sufficient evidence it should be tried."

The opening of the heroin injection room in Sydney's Kings Cross may have undermined people's fears, she suggested. "We won't know what the impact of that will be until the trial is finished," she said, "but we do know that the sky didn't fall in when it opened, and some of the more dramatic consequences people feared didn't pan out."

Even prosecutors were getting behind the proposal. Prosecutors from both New South Wales and South Australia told the Herald Sun they thought heroin trials might work. "I'm rather dismayed at the petulant and dismissive response from the PM," said NSW prosecutor Nicholas Cowdery. "This shows he is not prepared to apply his mind in a rational way."

The main opposition, the Labor Party, said only that it would consider heroin trials, but party leader Kim Beazley told The Age that Howard should listen to the NCA.

The Australian Greens and the Democratic party are calling for the trials to take place, with Democratic leader Natasha Stott Despoja telling the Australian Associated Press that heroin abuse is a health issue, not a criminal one.

"My plea to the prime minister is wake up, get real. Just say no to zero tolerance," Stott Despoja snapped. "The Australian Democrats recognize that the issue of drug use and abuse in our community is not a criminal issue. It's a health issue for those people who are addicted and those people who are dying, particularly our young people. We believe we should investigate a range of options, especially those where we have good overseas examples to show they work. The notion of zero tolerance is a joke," she concluded.

Prime Minister Howard has zero tolerance even for experiments in the states. Australian Capital Territories Chief Minister Gary Humphries last week introduced a bill calling for a referendum on the heroin trial and injecting rooms in the state legislature. Not if Howard can help it. He told the Herald Sun that he would vigorously oppose any state effort to institute heroin trials. "We would not give any aid or comfort to any state that considered conducting free heroin trials," he said. "The idea that we should give in is not one I can accept."

(Visit http://www.nca.gov.au/html/medpub.htm and click on publications and NCA Commentary 2001 to read the report.)

-- END --
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Issue #199, 8/17/01 Editorial: Let Justice Be Done | US Global Lead in Imprisonment Still Safe: State Prison Populations Begin to Decline but Feds Make Up Difference | Prison Industry Confab Gets Heated Reception in Philadelphia | Mandatory Minimums Under Threat, Supreme Court Showdown Looming After 9th Circuit Rules Against Certain Drug Sentencing Laws | Oregon Bar Ethics Brouhaha Continues: Feds Still Refusing to Authorize Undercover Operations, State Narcs Could Be Out There | Department of Education Cites Pressure to Modify Restrictions on Financial Aid | Australia: Top Cops Propose "Heroin Bank," Political Firestorm Ensues as Prime Minister Nixes Idea | Chess Players Become Drug Tested Pawns in Game's Bid for Olympic Status, Players Not Amused | Vermont Governor Leads Way in Restricting Oxycontin for the Poor | Weitzel Prosecution Condemned by Leading Pain Specialist | Marijuana Extracts for Pain Study to Begin in Canada | DRCNet Book Review: Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge Our Misguided Drug Rehab System | T-shirts for Victory! Special Offer and Appeal from DRCNet This Month | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | HEA Campaign Still Seeking Student Victim Cases -- New York Metropolitan Area Especially Urgent | The Reformer's Calendar
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