MARION McCONNELL. Drug Reform series-The long road to drug law reform

Aug 6, 2018

“What should I tell people about your son’s death”, asked our Minister. He was there to discuss arrangements for our son’s funeral. In my overwhelming grief it hadn’t crossed my mind, but now it immediately struck me.  Our son had died from a heroin overdose. He is now tainted with shame. We, his mum and dad will also be made to feel the shame.  Not something I ever thought my family would have to cope with. What should we do?  How should we handle this?  I need not have stressed because in an instant my husband replied in a sure but shaky voice: “Tell the truth”.

We would not be made to feel ashamed of our son. He had accomplished much in his 24 years. We were proud of him. And we would not destroy our family by blaming each other. We would not allow society or governments to keep us quiet. This was a time to tell the truth about what prohibition drug policy was doing to our families. These people dying weren’t worthless, they were our loved ones.

And thus began, not a few months or even a few years but over two decades of trying to change drug policy and laws that made criminals of our young family members. Our family members were the scapegoat for a failed policy, a prohibition policy that handed the sale of drugs to the now multi-billion-dollar illicit drug industry, a trade that is estimated at between $426 and $652 billion annually.

We discovered our son was using heroin less than 2 weeks before he died. It was on an oval not far from our home, an oval across which he had walked to school, where he had played cricket with his friends or walked and played ball with his much-loved dog. On this same oval we now found our son unconscious – from, as we were soon to be told by the ambulance officer, a heroin overdose.

What a shock! But more of a shock was the arrival of the police and the way we were treated by them. Finding out about his supplier was all important to them. They weren’t interested in the well-being of our son. They were carrying out their duty as the law had bade them. This was a moment of awakening for me. I realised immediately that our drug laws were not helping to keep our family members safe. My son was taken to hospital by the ambulance. The police followed and frightened him away from the help he needed.

He discharged himself, took a hurried holiday to get away from his fear of the police. He took heroin again alone in a motel room. This time there was no one to call an ambulance. Our son was dead at the age of 24. A sad and unnecessary death.

But how different this might have been if there had been no interference from law enforcement. Together with the health services we would have had more time to help and support him. He hadn’t hurt anyone else. He was working full time and had earned a Degree in Computer Science just 6 months before he died.  He was a loved brother, and a loved son and grandson.

It was in 1993, just 6 months or so later, that I first heard that Michael Moore, an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly, was at the time heading a working group to gather information on drug laws and the need for reform. I wrote to Michael encouraging him in this endeavour and relating the tragic loss of our son.

In his response, Michael told me of a speech that the Honourable Justice Michael Kirby, then President of the Appeals Court of the Supreme Court had recently delivered. Justice Kirby appealed to politicians to change the existing laws, describing them as inhumane as they persecute the victim and do not address the problems associated with drug usage and related crimes.

Michael Moore wrote in mid 1993: “Our aims in reforming the existing laws are to minimise the harm associated with drug use through the adoption of the medical model for the distribution of selected drugs and rejection of criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs.”

In April 1995, following a spate of heroin overdose deaths in the ACT, and prompted by families who had lost loved ones to heroin, Michael Moore called a public meeting to see what could be done about these burgeoning heroin overdose deaths.  The meeting was attended by over 40 people, many of whom had lost family members. They unanimously agreed that it was more the punitive prohibition policy that was at fault. Hence began the group Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform (FFDLR). Its main premise at the time was commitment to preventing the harm from illicit drug use. We all thought that our hard-told stories would provide the catalyst for change.

After all this time, 26 years since my son died, Australian governments are still lagging behind. Like many others, FFDLR has worked tirelessly over these years to bring about change that causes less harm.

What change have we seen in that time?   Endless research, conferences, parliamentary inquiries, more drugs (including new synthetic substances), continued alienation of drug users, more drug related deaths, development of the dark web, harsher penalties for drug users, more prisons and higher prison populations, increased mental illness, budget starved healthcare providers, budget rich law enforcement…  In other words, very little if any progress.

This is not what my husband and I had hoped for when we told our story, hoping that politicians would not only listen but act.  The shame and stigma that we then refused to accept still exists for many users and their families.

Justice Michael Kirby back in 1993 appealed to politicians to change the drug laws to incorporate a more humane policy and Michael Moore called for the decriminalisation of the personal use of drugs. Today, 25 long years later, these appeals have not been heeded. Our stories were not engaging enough for politicians to change laws. But change is in the air and it must happen, because it is right. It is just a pity that so many more families must suffer before change comes.

Marion McConnell, OAM, and her late husband Brian were founding members of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, following the death of their son to a heroin overdose


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