War on drugs ‘a war against our own children’: Harm Reduction Australia

By Amy Corderoy

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Australia is caught in an irrational, un-winnable war against drugs that is actually just a “war against its own children”, according to health and legal experts.

A new group run or supported by some of Australia’s top drug experts, Harm Reduction Australia, will argue more needs to be done to support harm minimisation – including the decriminalisation or even legalisation of some drugs.

Australia spends only about 2 per cent of drug spending on harm reduction activities, compared to 66 per cent (about $1.1 billion) on law enforcement. Australians spend more than $7 billion each year buying illicit drugs.

Harm Reduction Australia co-founder and president Gino Vumbaca, who previously ran the Australian National Council on Drugs, said Australian drug researchers and health experts have become too scared to speak publicly about the fact that harm minimisation is the only effective and rational approach to drug use.

“I think there has been a fear of speaking up for fear of repercussions, particularly when it comes to funding,” he told Fairfax Media.

The sector was entirely reliant on government grants, which only lasted 12 months “if you are lucky”, and people felt controversy could risk further funding.

“There was an understanding in the ’80s that [harm minimisation] was the best way to address this, but now what we are starting to see is funding for health and treatment going backwards in real terms,” he said.

Harm Reduction Australia’s founding board members include Frank Hansen, who for eight years was the commander for drug and alcohol coordination in the NSW State Crime Command, as well as a number of legal and health experts.

It is also supported by a drug experts including Alex Wodak, a doctor and the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. Dr Wodak said he believed the world’s response to drug use was changing.

He has just returned from the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, which he said was usually “depressing” but this year was exciting.

“It’s really starting to happen, it’s just amazing,” he said. But for anything to occur in Australia he believed bipartisan support was needed.

Labor MP Stephen Jones and Greens head Richard Di Natale are expected to speak at the launch on Thursday.

Mr Vumbaca also said world opinion was shifting.

“As the rest of the world starts to change, the US is moving, Mexico is moving, Canada and parts of Europe are moving, but where Australia had been seen as a leader in this field now we have stopped leading,” he said.

In an opinion piece written for Fairfax Media, Mr Vumbaca said the war on drugs was really “fighting a war against our own children”, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It is worth remembering that if we actually arrested everyone who used a currently illegal drug in the last year it would mean having to arrest more than a million Australians according to our latest national survey,” he wrote.

He said he hoped to inspire people to think whether they would like a law-enforcement response or a health-based response if it was their own child using drugs.

He said in many cases the decriminalisation, or “regulation” of drugs could be more beneficial.

“Look at tobacco, and the types of regulation we have been able to put in place for that, we don’t have any of that leverage for the illicit drug market, we just give up,” he said.

Harm Reduction Australia co-founder and vice-president Tony Trimingham said he knew little about drugs when his son Damien got involved with heroin at 21.

“It is also true that I did not know much more when he died of an overdose a year later,” he said. “I was shocked to find that people do not need to die. It is the illegality that causes the three main problems – death, disease and prison.”

However, Jo Baxter, the executive officer of Drug Free Australia, said decriminalising drugs would only encourage their use.

“Any drugs that have been legalised, whether it’s alcohol or tobacco, have finished up having a huge increase in use,” she said. “It’s been normalised and people think it must be OK because it’s legal”.

She said cannabis was a complex substance and not enough was known to allow its use for medical purposes, let alone recreational purposes – and Australia already had too many people who used it.

“We are one of the highest drug users in the world, which is really scary,” she said.


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