Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Pubdate: Wed 22 Jul 1998


When the police say their success in clearing the streets of
Cabramatta of flagrant drug dealing has had little or no effect on
actual drug use in the area, it is time to reconsider strategies for
reducing drug abuse. When the Police Commissioner, Mr Peter Ryan,
speaks in favour of more methadone clinics and moves, as in Victoria,
to caution and treat rather than prosecute and jail heroin addicts,
there is bound to be controversy. But Mr Ryan should not be criticised
for straying into a policy area badly needing deeper public discussion.

Heroin dependency is the cause of property crime on a vast scale and
cannot be eliminated by interdicting imports of the drug. To counter
its menace, there is a broad range of approaches. At one extreme, in
theory at least but impossible to imagine in Australia, is state
control of the lives of all citizens to the point where it is
impossible for any person either to buy or sell illegal drugs without
the knowledge and intervention of the authorities. At the other
extreme, is the soft approach of relying on public education to ensure
that people, knowing the harm, resist the temptation of illegal substances.

Neither of these extremes, of course is a real option. A sufficient
level of state control would unacceptably limit individual freedom.
And no amount of public education on the evils of drugs will prevent
some people from succumbing to them. Increasingly there is talk of
other ways, not towards the futility of punishment, nor towards the
false hope of education, but towards treatment of addiction.

A strategy to divert heroin users to treatment programs aimed at
ending their dependency requires a new approach to punishment.
Existing sanctions for drug-related crimes must remain. But one
suggestion is that courts should have a discretion, for example, to
offer a heroin-dependent house-breaker the choice of jail or entry
into a strictly supervised detoxification and rehabilitation program.
Obviously, such a proposal will not satisfy those who insist on
condign punishment for property crimes, whether driven by drug
dependency or not. But the arguments for some such new approach grows
stronger the more that drug-related property crime increases and the
more that money is thrown away on futile policing efforts.

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Checked-by: "Rich O'Grady"