Pubdate: Tue, 25 Aug 1998 
Source: The Chronicle (Canberra, Australia) 
Section: Editorial Page: 4 
Contact: Fax +61 2 6239 1345 
Author: Jim Dickins


AS THE first anniversary of John Howard's scuppering of the ACT heroin
trial passed last week, debate continued to rage about how best to tackle a
drug problem that seems to be worsening.

With the number of reported overdoses rising (up from eight fatal cases to
10 in the ACT in the last financial year) and growing police concerns about
the increased availability and purity of heroin on Canberra's streets
(recent seizures have included heroin up to 85 per cent pure), most agree
that current policies are not working.

But there remains a wide gulf between those advocating "harm minimisation"
measures such as a heroin trial and safe injecting rooms, and those who
believe a tougher, no-compromise approach is called for.

Canberra-based group Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform marked the
anniversary by calling on the Prime Minister to reconsider his rejection of
the heroin trial. Group president Brian McConnell said Mr Howard's
"knee-jerk" decision was based on an inadequate reading of the evidence.

"There is so much at stake here and the heroin trial is backed by such a
broad expert opinion," Mr McConnell said.

"From one family man to another and for the sake of our young people I ask
him to take an evidence-based approach and reconsider and support the
trial," Mr McConnell said.

Mr McConnell said August 19 last year - the day Mr Howard intervened to
prevent the trial -marked as "black Tuesday" on the calenders of group
members. Despite the setback, they believed a prescription heroin program
offered many users the best chance of coping with their habit. Mr McConnell
pointed to the success of similar trials in Switzerland and the UK.

"There is now a larger number of thinking community leaders calling for
change and calling for the heroin trial. We have already lost one vital
year. A year that can be measured in lives lost," he said.

However, there are many who still oppose a heroin trial, including
Legislative Assembly Speaker Greg Cornwell.

"It seems as though we've given up on the fight against drugs and now we're
just going to make it as comfortable as possible for the addicts," Mr
Cornwell said. "I don't believe we've even started to fight."

Mr Cornwell rejected Health Minister Michael Moore's proposal to establish
government-funded "shooting galleries" or safe injecting rooms, saying they
opened up a legal minefield and would attract addicts to Canberra from
throughout the country.

"I find it difficult to see how you can have a legal shooting gallery where
people are going to use an illegal substance," he said.

He wanted the courts to get tougher on drug dealers and complained there
were no measures in any of the harm minimisation strategies to stop people
taking up drugs in the first place. "Unless we tackle the drug question in
an overall sense then I don't think we'll get anywhere," he said.

He believed his position was representative of most Liberal Party members,
if not Liberal MLAs, as well as a majority in the general community. Indeed
his views do seem to form part of a broader conservative backlash against
the harm minimisation movement.

They echo, in part, those of former NSW Supreme Court judge and
anti-corruption royal commissioner Athol Moffitt who this month released
Drug Alert, a book, endorsed by John Howard, in which he attacks what he
sees as harm minimisation's corrosive influence on drug education. Mr
Moffitt argues that harm minimisation is a defeatist strategy.

Mr Moffitt maintains that governments should attack the problem at its
source by stopping young people from experimenting with drugs in the first

But harm minimisation champion Michael Moore said such arguments
misunderstood the education process.

"Just say no just doesn't work - ask anyone who's got a teenager," Mr Moore

He said that although the first message should always be "don't take
drugs", the harm minimisation approach recognised that message would not
always be heard.

"Nobody has been successful in maintaining a general prohibition and
nipping drug use in the bud," he said.

Mr Moore conceded there were legal problems with safe injecting rooms but
said they were not insurmountable and the Government was in the process of
finding solutions.

He said there was no danger of attracting addicts from outside the ACT as
health services had a confidential but accurate record of dependant drug
users living here.

He saw no point in tightening up the law and continuing the war on drugs
since, as many in the police force now agreed, that war had been lost.

"Instead of hoping for a perfect society that will never be, harm
minimisation is more pragmatic and seeks to reduce the harm to society ...
and the harm to individuals," he said. "Harm minimisation is about a
healthier society and that is why I so strongly support it as Minister for

The Government has not decided how the safe injecting room policy will be
implemented but Mr Moore estimated it would be in place by the end of the
year. In the meantime the debate, like the problem itself, will not go
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Checked-by: Richard Lake