Pubdate: Sun, 09 Mar 2003
Source: Sun-Herald (Australia)
Copyright: 2003 John Fairfax Holdings Ltd
Author: Miranda Devine
Cited: The Schaffer Library ( )
Bookmark: (Heroin) (Heroin Maintenance)


The story of Australia's heroin drought is an extraordinary good news story.
But it is getting little publicity because it destroys the popular myth that
the illicit drug problem will never be eased by prohibition. It is a
fascinating case study in how ideology blinds people to the truth.

Our heroin drought is unique in the world. It began about Christmas 2000 in
Cabramatta, the nation's largest heroin market, when a sudden shortage of
heroin was accompanied by a sharp rise in price and decline in purity.

This phenomenon came two years after a much-criticised change in Australia's
drug strategy. We switched from a disastrous decade-long experiment with
harm minimisation and lax law enforcement (which saw a doubling of daily
heroin users) to an official Tough on Drugs strategy, overseen by the
Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD). In charge was Salvation Army
Major Brian Watters, a zero-tolerance advocate hand-picked by the Prime
Minister and scorned as an anachronism by the influential drug
liberalisation lobby.

"We are building a fence at the top of the cliff rather than having
ambulances waiting at the bottom," Watters said on Friday.

Critics said the Tough on Drugs strategy was a step backwards, that it was
impossible to stem the flow of heroin into the country, that legalisation
was the only way forward.

"Like the US," wrote social commentator Hugh Mackay, "we've already made
fools of ourselves internationally by asserting that prohibition is the best

In NSW, courageous police like Cabramatta whistleblower detective Tim Priest
were victimised for refusing to turn a blind eye to drug-dealing on the

The mentality among academic criminologists and many in the police hierarchy
was that heroin was an intractable problem and law enforcement could do
nothing but wait for a more "enlightened" approach from government.

Meanwhile, heroin use soared.

But against this tide of progressive thinking, the Tough on Drugs strategy
rolled on. Border control was tightened. There was seizure after record
seizure of heroin. Police started doing their job in Cabramatta. Drug
kingpins were locked up. Just last year, Star City casino regular Jack Chen,
a member of the Sun Yee On triad and one of the biggest heroin importers
ever to afflict Sydney, was jailed for 40 years.

At the same time, Watters oversaw a record increase in drug treatment and
diversion programs for addicts, as well as a series of (often ridiculed)
drug education strategies.

And guess what? Heroin availability plummeted. Heroin use plummeted. Death
from heroin overdoses plummeted - from 968 in 1999 to 306 in 2001. What's
more, says Watters, fewer young people tried heroin. The 2001 National Drug
Strategy Household Survey found the proportion of the population aged over
13 who had been offered heroin declined from 2.4 per cent in 1998 to 1.5 per
cent in 2001. Overall, illicit drug use dropped from 22 per cent of the
population to 16.9 per cent, with ecstasy the sole exception. Fewer needles
and syringes were handed out by health authorities. More addicts signed on
for methadone and other treatment.

"It's the first time in 20 years that the number of people using drugs has
dropped," says Watters.

And guess what else happened? NSW crime statistics released last week showed
the crime rate falling, for the first time in a decade. Home burglaries,
robbery, armed robbery, car theft - the crimes beloved of junkies - are
down. Even NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR) director Don
Weatherburn acknowledges the heroin drought as the most likely reason.

But the naysayers try to talk this good news down. While professing to care
about saving lives, they ignore evidence that law enforcement works. The NSW
Greens have even brought to the coming election a drugs policy of
decriminalisation and licensed drug outlets.

"It is the party's view that prohibition has failed," NSW Greens convenor
Geoff Ash told the media last week. Says who?

The naysayers claim the heroin drought is a momentary aberration caused by
the war in Afghanistan, but Australia's heroin doesn't even come from there.
Or they claim heroin addicts are all switching to cocaine, which is refuted
in part by a drop in overall cocaine use and a reduction in the number of
needles and syringes dispensed. In a 2001 BOSCAR survey of 165 heroin users,
the majority said they were not using more cocaine because of the heroin

The naysayers cite America's prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s as the
great failure which proves prohibition of drugs is doomed. But alcohol use
did fall significantly in the US during prohibition, as did cirrhosis.
Suicide rates dropped by 50 per cent, as did alcohol-related arrests,
according to US drug policy resource, the Schaffer Library.

"It was the most lawful period in US history," says Watters, but prohibition
didn't work because, unlike heroin, alcohol was an integral part of the
social fabric.

He stresses his views are his own and not shared by all ANCD members. But at
age 67, as the son of an alcoholic and after a lifetime of helping addicts,
he figures he knows what he's talking about.

"I think we've turned a corner [in the war on drugs]. But I'm just worried
there are people in society who don't want to see it. They want to see us
turn their corner."
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