Pubdate: Thu, 26 Nov 2015
Source: Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Copyright: 2015 The Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Gino Vumbaca
Note: Gino Vumbaca is a co-founder of Harm Reduction Australia.


Turn the subject to drug use and suddenly it's a war with far too 
many people fearful of being branded as soft on drugs.

Imagine sitting in your home with friends, some are having a glass of 
wine and some are smoking a cigarette on the balcony after a 
calorie-laden dinner. A loud bang and yelling at the door silences 
everyone as the reality hits that you are about to be arrested and 
charged for drinking, smoking and unhealthy eating.

A ludicrous scenario of course as what adults choose to do in their 
own homes that may or may not be good for their own health is surely 
their own choice. Now, replace the alcohol, fatty food or cigarettes 
with cannabis or another drug classed as illegal and all of sudden 
all such rationality disappears.

There was a time when same-sex consenting adults in their own private 
residences engaging in sexual behaviour were branded criminals. The 
harm, stigma and discrimination this created forced such laws to be abandoned.

Turn the subject to drug use and suddenly it's a war with far too 
many people fearful of being branded as soft on drugs. Instead they 
accept the war and never question its effectiveness or true cost. 
However, don't believe the hype about it being focused on the "Mr 
Bigs" - the evidence shows this is just not true. In 2014, more than 
110,000 drug arrests occurred around the country, with more than 80 
per cent of those arrested and charged for personal use and more than 
1000 people a week for possession of cannabis. No "Mr Bigs" here just 
a lot of people - generally young and poor - landed with a criminal 
record and all the lifelong problems that creates. As for the true 
monetary cost of this approach, it is staggering.

To put it simply, we are fighting a war against our own children, 
friends and families and spending extraordinary sums of money for 
little positive effect. If we actually arrested everyone who used a 
currently illegal drug in the past year it would mean having to 
arrest more than a million Australians, according to our latest 
national survey.

We have to accept that human behaviour is flawed. We don't always 
make choices in our best interests and drugs are part of this complex 
picture and have been for thousands of years. People use psychoactive 
drugs for all manner of reasons from pleasure to masking 
psychological and physical pain. The arbitrary nature of laws which 
allows someone over 18 to legally purchase any quantity of alcohol 
and tobacco to use but not other substances of similar or less harm 
makes little sense to any objective observer. Is it the level of harm 
to oneself, to others or is some other measure being used to assess legality?

It should be no surprise that perverse decisions create perverse 
outcomes. Our new war on synthetic drugs has created just such an 
outcome. The booming market in synthetic cannabis and other drugs 
occurs despite them being more dangerous because they are easier and 
cheaper to produce, and market as legal (albeit for limited times), 
not because they are desired by users above the drugs they seek to mimic.

This does not mean there should be a free pass for the choices made, 
but it is the behaviour associated with the drug use that we should 
judge. Drinkdriving is rightly illegal - not the act of drinking. If 
your drug and alcohol use leads to behaviour that harms others, then 
the criminality is clear. If harm to one's own health is the crime 
then smokers, drinkers, the obese and others should surely be included.

These illogical and harmful double standards are why we established 
Harm Reduction Australia. At one level we are seeking to increase the 
resources allocated to harm reduction and services helping people 
with drug use problems. At another level we are seeking to expose the 
discrimination, irrationality and perverseness of the current laws 
and strategies that often pass without question.

Australia had a leading international reputation and role in reducing 
drug-related harm. Our early adoption of needle and syringe programs 
gave us one of the lowest levels of HIV among drug users and bears 
witness to the wisdom of this decision. The acceptance of harm 
reduction measures by previous governments meant that Australia did 
not, as many other countries had done, need to establish a national 
organisation solely dedicated to the promotion of harm reduction, 
rational and pragmatic drug policies.

Unfortunately that situation does not exist today. As governments all 
but squeeze out any non-government and affected communities 
involvement in drug strategies, then the more politically expedient 
our drug policies become, and the further evidence moves from the 
centre of the process.

When a self-funded group with as a diverse base of support as Harm 
Reduction Australia can be become a reality so quickly then you know 
the levels of concern and frustration of experts are at breaking point.

Before deciding on the message of harm reduction ask yourself if it 
were your child, friend or loved one using drugs whether your answer 
would be to criminalise them or increase their access to information 
and help. Support the policies you want applied to the ones you care about.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom