Drug policy has become a hot issue in elections two weeks away in Australia's New South Wales (NSW), thanks to a tabloid "exposé" of the NSW Green Party's platform on drugs and harm reduction. Never mind that the platform, official NSW Greens policy since last September, is posted on the Internet (http://www.nsw.greens.org.au/images/pdf/drugsharmmin03.pdf) or that the NSW Greens sent out a press release saying "Greens launch drugs policy" on January 29. Last Sunday the Murdochian tabloidesque Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) suddenly discovered the Green drug menace, blasting the story into the media spotlight under the headline "Hidden Policy on Drugs," accompanied by a poison pen editorial titled "Greens Go Soft on Hard Drugs." The Sunday Telegraph story was run virtually intact by newspapers including the Queensland Sunday Mail, the Courier-Mail, and the Herald Sun, generating a bevy of additional stories in the Australian press as politicos of all persuasions took the opportunity to weigh in on the topic.
The NSW Greens currently hold one seat in the NSW Legislative Council, or upper house, and are seeking two more, as well as their first seat in the state's Legislative Assembly. Described by one observer as a "major minor" party in the state, the Greens are NSW's fastest growing party, but trail far behind the governing Australian Labor Party and its primary foes, the Liberal-National "coalition." The Greens were expected to gain support because of strong sentiment against war in Iraq -- the national government of Prime Minister John Howard has committed to back any US invasion -- and it remains unclear how the tempest over their drug policy will affect their chances.
"I doubt that the drugs issue will cost them many votes as I think there is evidence that many community members are ahead of most politicians on this issue," said Dr. Alex Wodak, director of St. Vincent's Hospital Alcohol and Drug Service. "In my opinion, some of the drug policies advocated by the Greens are not so much wrong, as poorly expressed. The Greens have been unequivocally opposed to the imminent war in Iraq, and I suspect they will gain a lot of support for that, making it hard to work out the impact of the drug policy controversy," he told DRCNet.
What is the platform that is garnering all the attention? According to the Greens web site, the "policy is based on harm minimization and an understanding that drug use should not be treated as a crime, but as a health and social problem." Specific planks include:
"The Greens want voters to demand that this election sees a mature debate about the failings of prohibition policing and new approaches that treat drug use as a health and social issue," added NSW Green MP Lee Rhiannon.
Perhaps a mature debate is too much to ask for, but debate there has been. Prime Minister Howard's chief drug war lieutenant, Australian National Council on Drugs chair and Salvation Army Major Brian Watters, quickly weighed in against, claiming in an interview with The Age newspaper that making illegal drugs available in a controlled manner would send the wrong message. He also ridiculed the notion that providing a controlled supply of drugs could wean users away from them. "That is the equivalent of saying if we provide alcoholics with alcohol they're somehow going to stop drinking," he said.
As for the recreational use of drugs, Watters was equally dismissive. "Anyone who talks about ecstasy and cannabis in terms of recreation is trying to equate them with tennis or golf," he said. "These substances destroy people."
But Watters sounded positively reasonable compared to NSW Premier Bob Carr and Opposition leader John Brogden, who both used the Sunday Telegraph "exposé" to attack the Green drug platform. "I am deeply opposed to the greater ongoing use by Australians of amphetamines and ecstasy," Carr told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I don't want us to be a pill-popping society with youngsters boiling their brains on amphetamines and marijuana."
Brogden, for his part, described the Greens policy as "dangerously irresponsible," adding: "We say no to free heroin to heroin addicts and we say no to a ludicrous, crazy and dangerously irresponsible plan from the Greens to sell ecstasy over the counter in drug shops in NSW. It's a plan I find personally dangerous and abhorrent. It sends a frightening message to young people in NSW. Every parent in this state should be alarmed."
The Green platform, as noted above, does not call for selling "ecstasy over the counter in drug shops in NSW," but for looking into its "controlled availability -- under the supervision of qualified medical personnel."
But the platform has also gathered cautious public support, and the Greens have also taken the opportunity to support and amplify their position. The Australian Medical Association is backing the Greens' proposal for controlled heroin availability for addicts. "Difficult as this is for society to look at and see, solutions may involve limited trials of prescribing heroin to addicts," AMA national vice-president Dr. Trevor Mudge told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday. "I think that as long as it is on a trial basis and we evaluate whether it works, we do need to get out of the current thinking about the heroin problem."
Addiction specialist and former director of the Illawarra Drug and Alcohol Service Dr. Alexander Leach also got behind much of the Green platform. "In many ways, the Greens are at least trying to address the reality," he told the Illawarra Mercury. "Prohibition is not working, the sanctimonious line put forward by governments isn't working, and there is some merit in the view that the personal use of drugs should be decriminalized, and most of the treatment field would agree with that. I have worked in a medically regulated and controlled environment that deals with narcotics, and it is a field that resists control and regulation," he added.
St. Vincent's Dr. Wodak, while telling DRCNet it was not his role to endorse the platforms of political parties, said, "The Greens have expressed grave reservation about a drug policy heavily reliant on supply reduction, and I certainly share that view. Taxation and regulation of cannabis seems to me to be the least worst option for cannabis and is in my view politically and legally feasible. But that's a different story from amphetamine."
More research is required on the controlled prescription of amphetamines, said Wodak. "Until I am convinced the research shows that prescription control of dexamphetamine is safe and effective (and maybe also cost effective), then I will assume that it is unsafe and ineffective." Some research had been done, said Wodak, but it was not conclusive. "My approach may seem conservative to some, but that does not trouble me at all. Medical research should be conservative. Terrible errors have been made by medical research which was not conservative."
While the doctors were cautious, national Greens leader Bob Brown stuck by the NSW platform. "The direction of harm minimization must be brought onto the agenda. I think it's a very courageous but proper way to go," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "The alternative is prohibition, and we're seeing up to 1,000 Australians dying because of that. It's not meeting the problem in the way more enlightened countries overseas like Switzerland are."
State parliamentary elections are set March 22.