ANN SYMONDS. Drug Reform series -The politics of social change

Aug 6, 2018

The War on Drugs has failed.  Not only has it failed to stem the use of illicit drugs but it has also given rise to a host of other issues, including increased crime and corruption and a higher rate of disease and death from the use of such drugs.  Reform is long overdue, including a review of alternatives to blunt prohibition.  We can learn a lot from overseas experience.

Drug reform – where to begin? For me, it was becoming a Member of the NSW Legislative Council as a Labor woman in 1982.

Neville Wran, as Premier, left a decade of change from 1976 to 1986, affecting women in policies and programs in law – programs with the inclusion of women by implementing change.

When the Coalition came to office in 1988, many of these programs were dismantled. They did, however, establish two Standing Committees of the Legislative Council.

I was the Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Issues when, after several heroin deaths of young girls (some of them Aboriginal) in Kings Cross, Ted Pickering, as Police Minister, gave the Committee a reference to inquire into Drug Abuse amongst Youth.

At the first appearance to the Inquiry, a drug and alcohol doctor told us that alcohol caused 16% of drug deaths, tobacco 81%, and illegal and prescription drugs accounted for just 3%.

Clearly, this very significant data had not informed the decisions of policy makers or media reports. The general public continued to believe that illegal drug use was the major health concern to the community. This was the first time I found that the promise of “evidence based” policy, like “tough on crime”, “tough on the causes of crime”, failed to address the evident various health and social problems facing the community.

It was so disappointing that there was no political leadership to inform the people, and to develop laws and programmes in response. Sensational reporting, allocation of finance to the Police, and the introduction of harsh laws were supported by both major political parties, pursuing the example of the USA, which had increased harsh laws (the War Against Drugs).

They had a history of failed prohibition but still developed a series of “Conventions” prohibiting defined drugs. These were signed on to worldwide and so began the death, disease, crime and corruption from which society suffers.

In 1990, Max Willis, the Chair of the Social Issues Committee, arranged a study tour to look at the approaches of other countries into drug misuse. He and I visited the UK (London), the Netherlands (Amsterdam), Sweden (Stockholm), Finland (Helsinki) and the USA (Los Angeles). The concentration was on alcohol regulation, but in Amsterdam we were shown a mobile van providing clean needles and a doctor presented a low-cost, effective contact service for drug users.

The Committee produced reports on tobacco and alcohol. However, the Parliament was prorogued prior to an election resulting in the loss of the reference before being able to consider illicit drug use.

Michael Moore as ACT Health Minister (Independent) had been conducting an inquiry about cannabis use. He and I agreed that a cross-party Committee on illicit drugs might advance the cause for reform. We established the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform. In 1993 we drew up a Charter in which short-term and long-term goals were set. These goals were defined in terms of health and law:

  • The War on Drugs has failed.
  • It is a health and social policy issue.
  • Prohibition is the problem.

We had the Right and Left of Labor, Democrat and Independent members.  Although there were expressions of support from Liberals, only one Liberal member signed on.

By 1994, non-parliamentary members expressed support for the Charter, and so, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation was launched by The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG.

The Charter is now in Michael Moore’s office and should be looked at to recall the number of supporters, professional and community.

The next impetus for reform came from Justice James Wood after conducting the Royal Commission into the NSW Police Service. He recommended a Report on the Establishment or Trial of Safe Injecting Rooms.

A Joint Parliamentary Committee of eleven members began the Inquiry with the election of the Hon Patricia Staunton as Chair of the Committee on 8 July 1997. On 2 September that year, Patricia Staunton accepted an appointment to the magistracy, and I was elected as Chair on 23 September 1997.

In addition to evidence, the Committee undertook a study tour to inform us of the approaches of other countries to drug misuse. Liberal, Green, Independent and Labor MPs represented members on a Sub-Committee of four.

In two weeks, we saw programs in the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp), Switzerland (Zurich, Basel, Bern) and Germany (Frankfurt). All of these cities operated safe injecting rooms, and provided detox, rehabilitation and housing support. For me, the two outstanding programs were in Basel and Frankfurt. Basel is a purpose-built multi-service program. This is located on the ground floor of a new public housing block and staffed by health workers who arrange detox and rehabilitation when a user asks. There is no waiting period as a supply of services is well funded.

It’s extraordinary that senior politicians here still think that mandatory punitive treatment is likely to assist users to return to a healthy lifestyle. (See the failed system in Sweden.) At this time I decided that I could no longer tolerate the use of the word “clean” when describing abstinence. When a young woman in Dillwynia prison told me she had been “clean” for two years I objected. She asked why, and I simply said: “What’s the opposite of clean?” I suggested you say “use” or “don’t use”.

Respect for the user should be a starting point to help.

In Frankfurt, the third injecting facility was being built when we were there. One facility provided accommodation and work/training as well as an injecting room, and a bus to take users into the town centre to buy drugs. This remarkable program was designed and managed by the City Council with a committee representing conservative and progressive members, a police officer, a health/social worker and a judicial representative.

Understanding that many drug users have had chaotic lives, a residential program was offered in Ireland for education. The political and community support for these services provides an example of what leadership and cooperation can offer society.

Despite the evidence of effectiveness and acceptance in the cities we visited, and despite support for a trial from:

  • NSW public health officials;
  • the NSW Law Society;
  • the Australian Medical Association;
  • the NSW Bar Association;
  • and parents who had suffered the loss of a child;

the majority of the Committee did not recommend trialling safe injecting rooms. My dissenting report in support of the services was supported by Clover Moore (Ind), Ian Cohen (Green) and John Mills (Labor).

The Report, which was tabled in February 1998, is a thorough examination of drug misuse and effective responses. I recommend the report to you.

I then continued as Chair of the Social Issues Committee but decided to resign from the Parliament in April 1998.

Public and political consultation at the Drug Summit, held at Parliament House between 17 and 21 May 1999, recommended a trial of a safe injecting room.  The Kings Cross Medically Supervised Injecting Centre has now been operating for more than ten years.

The politics of social change became evident to me during these years of the Inquiry, but I now see progress in the acceptance that the War on Drugs has failed; health programs are supported by people in public office and by the community.

I now await the real drug law reform. In 1994 I met the former Head of the Drug Squad in England, who surprised me by saying he supported ending prohibition of all drugs.

I now agree that this is the way to develop laws and programs to deal with death, disease, crime and corruption.

I remain involved in drug advocacy and prison reform.

Ann Symonds, AM, was a Member of the NSW Legislative Council from 1982 to 1998 and has had a long interest and deep involvement in drug and prison law reform, and related social issues.  Amongst other distinguished roles, she chaired the NSW Parliament’s Enquiry into Establishment or Trial of Safe Injecting Rooms, which reported in early 1998 and led to the establishment of the Kings Cross Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, which has operated for the last 10 years.




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