Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Zero Tolerance or International Conspiracy: A Critical Analysis of the House of Representatives Inquiry into Illicit Drugs

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Zero Tolerance or International Conspiracy: A Critical Analysis of the House of Representatives Inquiry into Illicit Drugs

Article excerpt

The recent House of Representatives inquiry into the impact of illicit drug use on families suggested a further shin from harm minimisation to a tougher zero tolerance approach to drug use. But what was arguably more significant was the aggressive attack on advocates of harm minimisation by supporters of a war on drugs. Australian drug policy debates seem to be moving away from a concern with empirical evidence to an obsession with local and international conspiracy theories.

In February 2007, the Coalition Government announced a parliamentary inquiry into the impact of illicit drug use on families to be headed by Bronwyn Bishop, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Family & Human Services Committee. Other members of the Inquiry Committee included ALP MP Julia Irwin as Deputy Chair plus five additional Coalition MPs and three Labor MPs.

The Committee aimed to investigate three particular factors: 1) the financial, social and personal cost to families who have a member(s) using illicit drugs, including the impact of drug induced psychoses or other mental disorders; 2) the impact of harm minimisation programs on families; 3) ways to strengthen families who are coping with a member(s) using illicit drugs.

The Inquiry received 188 written submissions and hosted 17 public hearings at which lengthy oral submissions were presented. The final report, titled The Winnable War on Drugs, was tabled in September 2007. The analysis which follows will concentrate primarily on Chapter 4 of that report which critically examines the merits of harm minimisation programs and their advocates. The initial discussion will place that debate in a broader policy and ideological context.

The ideological context: Zero tolerance versus Harm Minimisation

Australian illicit drugs policy debates have become increasingly polarized between zero tolerance and harm minimisation perspectives.

The zero tolerance or prohibitionist perspective defines illicit drug use narrowly as immoral and/or criminal behaviour, rather than as a health issue. It implies an emphasis on law enforcement and prevention of drug use, rather than reduction of harm, and is often associated with a belief in a war on drugs.

Prohibitionists favour abstinence as the sole goal of practice interventions. They argue that drug law liberalization will: 1) increase the consumption of dangerously addictive drugs, and lead to large numbers of new users; 2) Fail to substantially reduce crime since a large proportion of users committed crimes prior to their dependency; 3) is unethical since it gives drug users no incentive to end their dependency (Rowe & Mendes 2004, 5-6).

The key opposing perspective is called harm minimisation. This term refers to a number of strategies which exist along a philosophical continuum: supplyreduction strategies, demand-reduction strategies, and harm-reduction strategies. It is the harm reduction strategy which overtly distinguishes harm minimisation from prohibitionist practices. Harm reduction involves strategies designed to reduce harm to individuals and the community such as needle syringe programs, pharmacotherapy prescribing programs such as methadone and buprenorphine, supervised injecting facilities, and prescribed heroin (Rowe & Mendes 2004, 5).

The major difference between harm reduction and zero tolerance can arguably be summarized as follows: harm reductionists aim to save lives and reduce drugrelated harm even if this means an overall increase in drug use, whilst zero tolerance supporters seek to reduce drug use per se even if this means an increase in the number of deaths (Wodak 2002, 51; Wodak & Moore 2002, 34; Macintosh 2006, 20).

The Policy Context

In Australia, harm minimisation has been the official drugs policy since 1985. As noted above, it was the addition of the harm reduction component that marked the major departure from past drug policy. …

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