Pubdate: Sat, 15 Jul 2000
Source: Mercury, The (Australia)
Copyright: News Limited 2000
Contact:  93 Macquarie Street, Hobart, Tasmania 7000 Australia
Fax: (03) 62 300 711
Author: Wayne Crawford, TIME FOR A DRUGS CHANGE

What should be central to the drugs debate in Australia is that the 
national number of heroin deaths is expected to top 1000 this year.

In 1964, the heroin death toll was just six, even three decades later in 
1997 it was "only" about 800.

The number of heroin deaths this year will be more thant twice the total 
number of young Australians killed in nearly a decade of fighting in the 
Vietnam War.  And if the death toll from heroin overdose continues to rise 
at the present rate, it will soon exceed the national road toll (there were 
1759 road deaths in Australia last year).

Despite record arrests by police and record seizures of the drugs this 
year's Australian Illicit Drug Report said first-time heroin use jumped by 
50% over three years.

Death from opiod overdose has become not only a national epidemic but a 
national scandal and disgrace.

Most of those who die from heroin overdoses do so in back alleys of towns 
and cities, either alone or in the company of other drug users who are too 
stoned or too scared to go for help because they think they will get in 
trouble with the law.

There is a way in which this heroin death toll would - or at least might - 
be dramatically reduced.  Even if heroin remained an illegal substance, it 
could be less of a killer if there were medically supervised injecting 
centres - shooting galleries as they are known colloquially - in areas of 
high drug use.

Socially progressive governments in New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT 
have all been trying to set up such safe injecting rooms as a trial, to 
find out to what extent there would be a reduction on the heroin death toll 
if addicts could shoot up in the relative safety of somewhere that they can 
be given help if something goes wrong; somewhere where they would also be 
counselled and encouraged to try to kick their drug habit.

But in all three cases, conservative "zero tolerance" forces hove managed 
to hold out so far against injecting centres, despite the certainty they 
would save at least some lives. The argument is it would send the "wrong 
message" and make illicit drugs more socially acceptable if they were given 
official or semi-official tolerance in injecting rooms.

The counter question is: What message does it send to have 1000 mainly 
young Australians dying in the back alleys of the nation because there is 
nobody there to help them stay alive long enough to try to get clean of drugs?

This week came news that the United Nations International Narcotics Control 
Board, while expressing concern about the prospect of injecting room 
trials, is offering no support to Prime Minister John Howard's claims that 
the trials would breach Australia's obligations under international drug 
control treaties. In a report to the Federal Government the board was 
conspicuously silent on that question. Coincidentally, Labor leader Kim 
Beazley announced he had dropped his opposition to trials of prescription 
of heroin to addicts. He also supported a range, of measures including 
supervised injecting rooms and subsidised treatment of addicts with the 
detoxification drug naltrexone.

Said Beazley: "The evidence is if you actually keep people alive they will 
kick the habit: they'll get through it."

Sadly though, the Prime Minister's tough-on-drugs position has, if 
anything, hardened. A planned $16 million anti-drug campaign was postponed 
after his office challenged the content of an educational guide produced by 
the Australian National Council on drugs, as not tough and uncompromising 

John Howard's approach is hostile to the extension of the successful free 
syringe progrem by also providing a safe place for addicts to inject. The 
free syringe program has operated in Australia for more than 20 years and 
is credited with keeping Australia at the forefront of the battle against 
HIV and hepatitis -- tangible evidence of the success of the 
harm-minimisation approach.

The authoritarian, prohibition and lock-'em-up policies pioneered by the 
United States and embraced by John Howard, have failed.

Injecting rooms are not the whole answer, but it is time to trial a range 
of alternatives -- injecting rooms, heroin prescription trials, drug 
courts, naltrexone treatment, combined with increased law enforcement 
against suppliers and importers. The lives of too many of our children are 
at risk to not at least try.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager