Source: Canberra Times (Australia)
Copyright: 1999 The Canberra Times
Contact:  Sun, 24 Jan 1999 
Page: 7
Author: Peter Clack


Peter Clack looks at the war against heroin that the community is losing
and at the lives the drug is claiming.

HAVE we had the first heroin death for 1999 yet?

If not, it won't be long. Someone, somewhere, will get a batch of heroin
that is too pure and will die a dreadful and lonely death in a public
toilet, a back alley or on a park bench.

Ambulance paramedics have already treated five overdose victims so far this
month in Canberra.

The war on drugs, launched by political zealots seeking to be popular and
righteous, has dragged on for more than 40 years.

The death toll keeps growing. The drugs keep pouring in. The jails are
filling up with people convicted of drug-related crimes and graveyards
increasingly show the toll on young lives.

In this era of prohibition, drugs and drug-users are cursed and demonised
by mainstream society and banished to the grubby, dingy backblocks where
they and their plight can be kept out of sight till they go away or die.

There is little sympathy for drug addicts, seen almost universally as
parasites on society and accused of most of the crime.

Canberra is not immune and I don't think anywhere is. Last financial year,
ACT Ambulance Service paramedics responded to 850 calls to overdose victims
of drugs from a stable of drugs that continues to swell. Of these, 280 were
heroin overdoses. Ten people were not so lucky and perished in the year,
their young lives wasted at the altar of prohibition.

Why is it that human society seems incapable of meeting the awesome
challenges of a burgeoning culture of drugs?

We measure out their lost lives with tombstones and statistics, showing the
rising trends of drug overdoses. But we rarely see the true social carnage,
the parents with their shattered hopes and dreams.

But a groundswell of movement is trying to combat the ideology that law
enforcement alone is the answer. It failed 40 years ago. It fails today. It
will fail tomorrow.

A community drug worker, talking about Health Minister Michael Moore's
proposal for a safe drug-injecting place for addicts, said to me last week,
"It is to save lives." Mr Moore still hopes it will be established though
at present he lacks support.

Safe injecting places are not new, but many see them as radical and others
as downright unacceptable.

A Government-owned and -run clinic for people to inject drugs poses huge
social and legal problems for a society almost transfixed by a legal system
born in Britain centuries ago and still clinging to inflexible notions of
good and evil.

This evangelical perception of right and wrong seems to come from some
alien culture since it has so little application in the modern world of
swiftly changing values and moralities.

Unfortunately, those seeking to promote the idea of stopping drug addicts
from dying must first do battle with the defenders of the status quo, those
who insist that others live by their own set of standards.

Maureen Cane is the director of the ACT Drug Referral and Information
Service, which manages Assisting Drug Dependents Incorporated and the
needle-exchange service.

Ms Cane sees the world from a very different perspective from most, one
where the people who come to her for help are generally grungy, desperate,
alone, drug-addicted, penniless, malnourished, unwell and on the emotional

She says they are all very susceptible to blood-borne diseases or impure or
over-pure drugs. The agency has estimated the local drug-using population
at 3340, about 200 or more regarded as hard-core. The agency hands out
500,000 needles a year just to stop the spread of disease.

She says also that they are not lost causes and many could be rescued from
their plight if there were some way of giving them the help they need.

Amazingly, there is no way provide any of them with a decent residential
service to cater to their needs and help them to detoxify. There is no
rehabilitation program for under-18-year-olds in the ACT and no caring
place where they can go.

Ms Cane believes they can be saved and got back to school, work and their
families. But, like almost every community worker in Australia, her hands
are tied by rigid laws that criminalise these people and banish them to the
fringes of society.

In May last year, her agency published a report canvassing ways of
combating drug and alcohol addiction and abuse, "Getting to Stop: Blueprint
for Action on Exit Options for Young Drug Users in the ACT".

The president of ADDInc's managing committee, Richard Refshauge, says drugs
soak up police and court time, medical, hospital and counselling services
and frustrate their education. It is a diabolical cost on business,
government and taxpayers.

His philosophy, and that of Ms Cane, Health Minister Michael Moore and
almost any professional in the field is for "intervention" as early as
possible. The idea is to spend the money on young people when things are
going wrong and not wait till they are dead or their lives and
opportunities ruined.

There is a strong push to build and run a detoxification and residential
facility for young people. Not a prison.

Let's not treat them like criminals, but treat their addiction and find
ways to return them to their families, to schools and to the community.
It's too late when parents hold hands and cry over their children's graves.
But this proposal is shelved because the $1 million annual running costs
cannot be found in the federal Treasury.

Dr Glenn Rosendahl has been the medical officer at the Belconnen Remand
Centre for six years and in that time he has treated many people whose
lives have been reduced to chaos by drugs.

"I have seen it over and over again," he said in a commentary about
narcotic abuse which he submitted to the ACT Government last year.

"The addict who joins the legal/correctional merry-go-round, and over the
space of a year or two makes several appearances, is remanded several
times, and then - having exhausted the patience of the magistrate or judge
- - disappears into the maw of the prison system to service an extended

At least we are likely to see these people when they get out, he says. But
we will never see the young lives snuffed out at the point of a needle,
never knowing if the death was a mistake, a deliberate act of depression
and self-loathing or a homicide.

Dr Rosendahl said the "Mr Bigs" were rarely caught because they could
remain anonymous. But there was no mistaking the addicts. who are well
known to magistrates, police and the medical profession.

He says these are the ones who need the attention and he proposes a general
register of narcotic addicts and compulsory treatment. He backs early
intervention and says they should go to a form of custodial rehabilitation.
Once stabilised, they would be kept under review.

There would be a cost for such a program. But he says this must be less
than the revolving door of police surveillance, arrests, court appearances,
remands, jail terms, reappearances, re-using and being arrested again.

"Surely it would be less expensive to promptly identify the problem and
prescribe a definite solution," he said.

But solutions put forward by Dr Rosendahl, Ms Cane and Mr Moore soon become
ensnared by the entrenched belief systems and ideologies of other powerful
people and vested interests.

And while this battle for legitimacy rages, the other war goes on silently
along the dim streets and in the homes and suburbs.

Mostly, this other war is a more simple one, It is about life and death.
Not much room here for the moralities of rights and wrongs. 
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