Pubdate: Thu, 26 Nov 2015
Source: Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Copyright: 2015 The Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Amy Corderoy, Health editor


Australia No Longer in the Lead

Australia is caught in an irrational, unwinnable war against drugs 
that is just a "war against its own children", health and legal experts say.

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

Harm Reduction Australia cofounder 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 lasted 
only 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 
co-ordination in the NSW State Crime Command, as well as legal and 
health experts.

It is also supported by drug experts such as 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.

He said he hoped to inspire people to think whether they would like a 
law-enforcement response or a health-based response if it were 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.

But Jo Baxter, 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."
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