MICK PALMER. Drugs policy – there has to be a better way.

Mar 20, 2018

Australia 21, a respected, independent, public policy, research and ‘think tank’ focused, organisation   is hosting its fourth roundtable forum on the issue of Australia’s illicit drugs policy, on 21 March 2018 at Victoria’s Parliament House.

The Roundtable will comprise some 35 to 40 experts and practitioners from across the spectrum of the drug use, public health, academe and drug policy fields and will essentially grapple with the question:

“Can we impact positively on apparently intractable social problem through improved social policy to address the currently illegal drugs?”

 This question is not, in itself, new and many of the issues associated with the topic have been previously canvassed and debated.

Sadly though, progress has been slow and, although privately there are many, including those in politics and other areas of public life, that agree that Australia’s illicit drugs policy is mortally wounded and clearly not fit for purpose, it has proven extremely difficult to move at more than a snail’s pace along the path to meaningful reform and improved performance and outcomes.

While encouraging initiatives such as Victoria’s medically supervised injecting centre, (MSIC) being established in Richmond, and the recent Federal Government decision in regard to improving the availability and supply of medicinal cannabis, have occurred, change is at best, piecemeal and fragmented.

It is recognised that any move to change drug policy needs to be incremental and subject to ongoing review and assessment. But as has been said by many, “Australia’s illicit drugs policy is seriously broken and cannot be fixed by some minor tweaking”.

Perhaps a different, more radical approach is needed to generate the necessary traction and to trigger genuine assessment of how best, drug related social policy outcomes could be improved.

Clearly there would be  significant benefit in conducting a comprehensive review and assessment of the present state of play and the results being achieved under current policy; of learning lessons from the changes made or  being considered for implementation internationally; of honestly assessing the strong body of evidence and professional opinion (including from front line and highly experienced police and other first-responder practitioners) that our existing illicit drugs policy approach  has failed to meet any of its own expectations and is simply not fit for purpose, and of demonstrating the links between social status, long term unemployment, low self-esteem, family violence,  mental illness and depression  and the incidence of illicit drug use.

These arguments, of course, have been previously put by experts and widely promoted. But, while not new to our politicians or to other key decision makers they are largely met with a straight bat or a bland “there will be no change on my watch” style statement.

Australia’s policy has the stated aims of reducing demand, supply and harms. The evidence is clear, however, that regardless of the time effort and money expended, or the successes achieved by police and other inter-diction agencies, the policy has unambiguously failed to achieve any of these objectives. Supply remains essentially undiminished and new drugs are appearing on the market; demand remains insatiable, with access easy and new and increasingly dangerous drugs being used, and harms continue to be aggravated and increased rather than reduced.

Our heavily slanted focus on controlling supply and the much vaunted public promotion of, what are now,  frequent significant drug  seizures, simply diverts attention from the fact that, despite these results,  present policies are failing on almost every front.

Whilst, it is not suggested that the following approach alone can settle new policy, perhaps, just perhaps, it may stir the consciences of doubters, personalise an otherwise “remote” debate and trigger a new journey. Perhaps it may make a sufficiently positive impact to become the catalyst for improving social policy.

However, whilst positive Impact is possible, recent history suggests that the focus and nature of the argument needs to be carefully considered. The community must be brought along with the debate and    the discussion must be with the “unbelievers” rather than the disciples. Arguments must be mounted that cause critics to pause for thought, to reconsider their positions and attitudes, to change their opinions.

In the advertising industry it is often said that “Facts Tell but Stories Sell”.

As examples, it is understood that Former NSW Premier Mike Baird became a strong supporter of medicinal cannabis as a result of meeting Lucy Haslam’s son Dan and witnessing, first hand, the suffering Dan was enduring and the relief cannabis gave him: that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews reversed his opinions and became a supporter of VE as a consequence of a tragic personal family experience. Similar “emotional” arguments highlighting the reality of the problem on the streets led to the approval in Victoria for an MSIC in Richmond.

To trigger action it may be important to more strongly emphasise and personalise the reality of the problem – the multitude of underlying causes – the nature and reality of the isolation and suffering that drug abuse and addiction so frequently causes – the social reasons which lead to drug use – and the avoidable harm and discrimination which our current policy so often creates, all too often on the most vulnerable and defenceless of our people.

This will require far more active involvement in creating opportunities for drug users and family members to tell their stories: in the media; through such mediums as Lions, Rotary and other community organisations and church groups – to reach out to ordinary people; to demonstrate the REALITY of the harm, distress and isolation caused by current policy; to look below the surface; behind the visible symptoms at the underlying causes: to make the case   difficult for normal decent people to ignore.

In the early 1970’s police in Darwin attended a home one evening in which two young boys, suspected of breaking into a local store, lived with their family. The break-in was unusual in that only two, one dozen can, cases of ‘Pie Apple’ (unsweetened –essentially sour – apple used in apple pies) had been stolen. On entering the house, about 6pm., police found four children, including the two suspected boys, aged 12 and 14 years, and their mother and father, at the kitchen table all eating pie apple directly from the stolen cans.

A search of the house showed no other food in the house other than the cans of pie apple. There were six cans in the refrigerator and a dozen cans in the kitchen cupboards but no sign of any other food. Only one bed in the house had a mattress, the remainder simply had a blanket thrown over the bare bed springs.

It transpired that dad was an alcoholic and gambling addict, mum suffered severe depression and the two oldest boys had simply stolen food to feed their family. The symptom was theft, but the cause was far deeper.

What the situation desperately cried out for was compassion and an analysis of the reasons for the family’s plight.  The family needed help and support not further hurt and demonization. A law enforcement approach alone would simply have further aggravated their situation and probably ensured the downward spiral into deeper criminality of the two boys.

Police paid for the pie apple which was being eaten and returned the remainder to the store proprietor who agreed not to prefer charges. Welfare and the Salvation Army were contacted and support including mattresses clothing and food, together with on-going care arrangements, was provided.

The police response was not in accordance with normal policy or practice and some observers considered that the unusual exercise of discretion was courageous…perhaps even dangerous. For the police officers who stood in the kitchen that day, the decision was easy.

The reality is that, whatever is the problem being faced, Australians are fundamentally very decent and caring people. But to achieve the changes and improvements so desperately needed to our illicit drugs policy we must find ways to cause people to confront, identify and deal with the reality and to recognise the causes, not simply the symptoms. As part of this process we must be prepared to unashamedly tug at people’s heart strings in order to change their minds.

The scale of the problem and its inherent complexities, almost demands the matter be referred to a Royal Commission to genuinely open up the whole issue and promote an informed debate. Despite the fact that a  recommendation of the 1980 Williams Royal Commission that drug prohibition be reviewed, if after 10 years significant progress had not been made, has been  ignored  by successive governments, the recently concluded child sexual abuse Royal Commission clearly demonstrates the potential value of such an approach.

Alternatively a referral to the Productivity Commission with a request for a serious analysis of the costs and benefits of current policy would, almost certainly, prove of substantial value.

Whatever approach is taken, however, as a society we need to recognise that the situation is serious and getting worse. For Australians, “standing still” should be a totally unacceptable option. The journey, importantly, will need to be one of many small, incremental steps, but it is a journey which our leaders must be prepared to commence and which our society should demand.

There simply has to be a better way.

Michael John (Mick) Palmer is a barrister and 33 year career police officer with extensive experience in police leadership, corporate governance resilience and integrity, and reform in community, national and international law enforcement and security. He has had an active interest in human rights and illicit drug reform for many years.

 Mick joined the Northern Territory Police in 1963 and having progressed through the ranks, was appointed Commissioner of the Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services agency in 1988. He served in that position until 1994 when he was appointed Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), a position he held for 7 years until his retirement in March 2001.

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