A new effort to begin heroin prescription trials for addicts is underway in Australia. Earlier attempts to begin such trials were stymied by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who this week signaled that his position remains unchanged. Nonetheless, with the opposition Labor Party in control of all state and territory governments, the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Jon Stanhope, is urging Howard and all state and territory leaders and health ministers to support his proposal for a jointly funded national heroin trial involving the ACT.
Stanhope told the Australian AP on Tuesday he hoped to gain support from other state and territorial governments, adding that the ACT was looking for both political and financial support for the proposal. "I am hopeful that some of my state and territory colleagues will come on board," he said. "I do expect to receive the support of my state and territory colleagues. To some extent, this is a test of their commitment as well."
So far, the response from chief ministers has been mixed. According to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) report Wednesday, Northern Territory Chief Minister Claire Martin has come out in support of the plan, but added that trials in the Northern Territory "would not be appropriate" at this time.
The Australian AP reported similar waffling support from the government of Victoria. According to a spokesman for Victoria Health Minister John Thwaites, the state's Labor government favored such trials but lacked political support. New South Wales said it was unlikely to support the plan. "The government has previously rejected the trial of prescribed heroin and that was also not supported by the NSW drug summit in 1999," a spokesman for NSW Special Minister of State John Della Bosca told the Australian AP.
While acknowledging Prime Minister Howard's opposition to heroin trials, Stanhope said he hoped Howard would come around. "I don't think we should give up just because one person in Australia, one leader out of all the leaders in Australia, has an ideological objection to this sort of approach," Stanhope told the ABC. "I am hoping he will show some leadership on this, he won't dismiss it out of hand, that at least he will be able to consider it seriously."
There is no sign of that yet. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Howard once again rejected heroin trials. "The government's focus will remain on ensuring a wide range of treatment and rehabilitation options aimed at helping illicit drug users kick the habit rather than options that involve maintaining heroin use," he said in a statement. "Prescription heroin trials would send exactly the wrong message to the community and undermine education and treatment efforts," he said.
But Howard was also somewhat on the defensive after a popular public affairs TV program, ABC's "Four Corners," criticized the government's "Tough on Drugs" policy as harsh and ineffective. And in an illuminating indication of the relative backwardness of the US discourse on drug policy, Howard took special criticism from the program for having a "radical" as his chief drug advisor. That advisor is Salvation Army Major Brian Watters, who joined the board of the abstinence-based Freedom from Drugs Foundation in June 2000. Both ABC and The Age newspaper qualified the organization as a "radical zero tolerance drug foundation."
Watters' American peer, US drug czar John Walters, routinely consorts with such groups and receives cheers instead of jeers for so doing. But in the more advanced Australian context, Watters was compelled to distance himself from the foundation. He explained Monday that he was no longer involved with the foundation and that while he had never formally informed the Australian National Council of Drugs, the government body that he chairs, that he was involved with the foundation, he had been open with fellow council members about it.