Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Drug Law Reform - NZ Show Australia How it's Done

It seems that our New Zealand cousins are finally taking some much needed action on drug law reform. Australia should take note of this and consider carefully what they are doing.

Old, antiquated drug laws and policies continue to wreak carnage on society while our government continue to apply the same old failed strategies, hoping for some miraculous turn around. For over 40 years, we have followed in the foot steps of the US which is only now starting to see the damage they have inflicted on their own people. Likewise in Australia, we have ruined so many lives from a "Tough on Drugs" mentality and the laws are causing more problems than drugs themselves.

Why do NZ have a better understanding of this than Australia? SA and WA had started seeing good results from a more sensible approach to cannabis use but decided to ignore the success by reintroducing tougher laws. These acts of arrogance were in complete opposition to the current world trend and in defiance of expert opinion. Even the Australian federal government continues to cherry pick advice from key advisory groups purely to suit their political needs. All this while the evidence keeps pouring in that our drug policies are probably some of the worst decisions ever made by a government. New Zealand is at least doing something about it.

Too many resources are directed into criminalising people rather than providing them with the medical help they most need. Current drug law is 35 years out-of-date and is hurting our families.

Too many resources are directed into criminalising people rather than providing them with the medical help they most need. The Law Commission's report recognises this and seeks to redress it by adopting a harm reduction approach for dealing with personal drug use by adults.

This new approach, if adopted, will actually save money enabling greater resources to be directed into health services for breaking the cycle of drug abuse and addiction. It will also free police to tackle more serious crime.

The suggestions made by NZ Law Commission are a good start for a future without drug prohibition ... the single most destructive policy in 100 years. Most of us have never experienced a world where recreational drugs were regulated which makes it hard for the public to imagine how ending drug prohibition would work. We have to gradually introduce recommendations like those from the NZ Law Commission and give them time to take hold. As predicted by the experts, the results will speak for themselves, slowly shifting the public's perception. Well done NZ!

NZLC R122 Controlling and Regulating Drugs - A Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975

Published 3 May 2011

The Law Commission today issued its latest report, Controlling and Regulating Drugs – A Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

Among the key proposals contained in the report are:

A mandatory cautioning scheme for all personal possession and use offences that come to the attention of the police, removing minor drug offenders from the criminal justice system and providing greater opportunities for those in need of treatment to access it.

A full scale review of the current drug classification system which is used to determine restrictiveness of controls and severity of penalties, addressing existing inconsistencies and focusing solely on assessing a drug’s risk of harm, including social harm.

Making separate funding available for the treatment of offenders through the justice sector to support courts when they impose rehabilitative sentences to address alcohol and drug dependence problems;

Consideration of a pilot drug court, allowing the government to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of deferring sentencing of  some  offenders until they had undergone court-imposed alcohol and/or drug treatment

No More Prisons, Says English
May 2011

Finance minister Bill English says there will be no more prisons built under his watch as finance minister.

He's called prisons a moral and fiscal failure and there are other ways of dealing with criminals and potential criminals.

Asked by Guyon Espiner on Q A this morning if the government was going to continue building prisons once the 1000-bed facility in the Auckland suburb of Wiri was completed, English said Wiri was likely to be the last.

"They're very, very expensive," English said. "$250,000 a bed, $90,000 a year to run ... when we're tight for money."

He said the aim instead is to reduce recidivism, and prevent young people from entering the system at all.

"The public service has done a lot of very smart work on this and, over the next two or three years, we're going to see the need for prison beds drop a bit at least."

But a spokesperson for victims says English is wrong. Sensible Sentencing spokesperson Garth McVicar says it's not the right tactic.

"Just as they were starting to bear fruit through the 'tough on crime' message that they were sending out, he capitulates and waves a white flag," McVicar told ONE News.

"It just sends the wrong message to criminals. I know people think criminals are dumb but they're quite smart and they'll understand if we're not going to build more prisons out there, then ultimately we're not going to send them to prison."

One advocate for penal reform agrees with English and is certain having more prisons will just breed more criminals.

"We could put more prisoners into trades; we could put more prisoners into work on farms," Peter Williams QC told ONE News.

"We've got to put more emphasis on rehabilitation, drug programmes, anti-alcohol programmes without just locking these people up in small containers."

English said the government is committed to building Wiri's prison so that won't change.

"That's well through the process, and we need the extra 1000 beds because it's been part of this government's policy and public pressure for tougher sentences and a safer community," he said.

The Labour Government built four prisons but National has been saving money by housing some prisoners in purpose-adapted containers.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Q & A: Nicholas Cowdery

Name: Nicholas Cowdery
Role: Ex. NSW Director of Public Prosecutions (17 years) / President of the International Association of Prosecutors (6 years). 
Date: June 2011

Criminal law has no business trying to control a market. Can it modify supply and demand? Well, no it can't. It can only clean up after the event.
-Nicholas Cowdery - IQ² debate. 2011

People like Nicholas Cowdery were once rare but are becoming more common every year. I'm talking about those in very senior positions working for the government, politicians, law enforcement officers, judges, economists etc. who want an end to dangerous global drug laws that cause so much carnage each year. And Nick has been warning us about this for a long time. In 2001, he wrote the book, Getting Justice Wrong: Myths, Media and Crime which clearly exposed the problems we all encounter due to global drug policies.

The book arose, in fact, from a suggestion by the publishers that some papers and articles I had produced be collected and reproduced in book form. The underlying premise of this collection of chapters is the risk to justice – the risk of getting justice wrong – posed by the influence of some sections of the media on policy making and legislating by politicians. I am also concerned, more generally, with policy being based other than on fact and reason. Without careful analysis and a critical assessment of the publications of talkback radio “entertainers” (as they like to be described), the tabloid press and low IQ television, we are at risk of the rule of law being subverted for motives that are irrelevant to the proper process of law-making – essentially, motives of profit for the commentators.

They are not accountable to the community. They are not concerned with the good government of the people, with what is in the public interest (properly understood) rather than what is of interest to the public. They appeal to the emotions of their audience with partial truths and sweeping generalisations about matters that are topical at the time. They deliberately adopt extreme positions on simple propositions. They perpetuate some of the myths about crime, especially, that are reinforced at every state election.
-Nicholas Cowdery - Lecture at the University of New England, Armidale, May 2001

You really have to respect Nick for his commitment while working under less than ideal conditions. How many people in his position would criticise a strategy that is championed by so many in his industry? But what really makes Nick's views so important is his credibility. Being a QC, receiving an Order of Australia from the Queen, serving as the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions for 17 years and spending six years as President of the International Association of Prosecutors should tell us that his legal views are more than likely correct. The point is, when someone with these credentials constantly tell us that we are making a mistake by following a set of laws that have failed worldwide for 40 years, then maybe we should listen to them. 

About Nicholas Cowdery
Nicholas Richard Cowdery AM QC (born 19 March 1946) was the Director of Public Prosecutions for the Australian state of New South Wales. He held the position from 1994 to 2011.[1] Cowdery also served as President of the International Association of Prosecutors from 1999 to 2005.

Cowdery attended Wollongong High School and completed his secondary schooling at the Sydney Grammar School. He graduated in Arts and Law at the University of Sydney where he was a resident of St. Paul's College.

In 1971, he commenced practising as a public defender in Papua New Guinea after admission as a barrister in the same year. Cowdery entered private practice in 1975 where he concentrated in criminal law, common law, administrative law and some commercial law.

He was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1987, served as an Associate Judge of the District Court between 1988-1990. Cowdery was appointed the Director of Public Prosecutions for New South Wales in 1994. He was elected President of the International Association of Prosecutors in 1999 and re-elected to a second three-year term in September 2002.

He wrote Getting Justice Wrong: myths, media and crime
-About Nicholas Cowdery from Wikipedia

NOTE: I want to thank Nick for participating in this Q&A. I didn't really expect someone like Nicholas Cowdery to even respond to my email let alone agree to answer some questions. But as usual, I was wrong. Nick responded in 24 hours and said he was happy to participate. Thanks Nick.


Has being so adamant that the "War on Drugs" has failed been a problem especially since you held such a prominent position as the Director of Public Prosecutions in NSW for nearly 17 years?
No. As DPP it was my duty, which I carried out, to apply and enforce the law with the resources that I had available and within the rules and guidelines that applied. However, in doing so I was confirmed in my view that as a society we could address drug issues better. It is quite possible to apply oneself fully to the operation of a system, yet believe that the system should be changed. Legal training equips one well for such mental gymnastics.

From your experience, do many others in the legal profession feel the same as you about drug policy?
Yes, from my experience a very large number in all areas of practice.

From your experience, do many politicians you know actually believe the hype that the war on drugs is winnable?
No – but their main concern is re-election and they are loath to publicly express their true views unless they can be assured that a substantial portion of the electors will agree.

Did the dispute between you and Attorney-General John Hatzistergos have anything at all to do with your out spoken views on changing drug laws?

You have publicly criticised the "tough on crime" agenda used by politicians. Do you personally know any politicians who sincerely object to that strategy?
In November 2010 Greg Smith stated publicly that there would not be a “law and order auction” election in March 2011 and there was not. I think many politicians (and I have spoken with a few) see such campaigns as fruitless.

What are your thoughts on The Greens changing their drug policy to be more in line with the major political parties?
No doubt influenced by other considerations of political alliances, etc.

Do you feel frustrated by the public’s ignorance regarding drug myths and their willingness to accept misinformation from the government and media outlets?
It is not easy to gauge the level of understanding or of ignorance in the community generally. We become aware of these things only when something is published or stated at a meeting, etc. Ignorance about any issue in society can only be addressed by providing as broadly as possible reliable, accurate information. Politicians spread information selectively for their political advancement, as they see it (by and large). The tabloid media create conflict and controversy to sell advertising. The public are more easily exposed to those sources of “information” than to credible sources that may require some extra effort to uncover and to fully comprehend.

Do you feel it’s someone right to take illicit drugs (or to put whatever they want into their own body?)
Generally, yes – if they are able to make an informed choice about it. However, members of a society also have a responsibility to obey the laws of that society made in their name and for their benefit.

Do you or have you used illicit drugs recreationally?

Do you think a needle exchange program is needed in prisons?

The support for the proposed safe injecting room in Richmond has surprised many people. Why do you think there has been such a rapid change of attitude considering the recent controversy over the Kings Cross MSIC?
I think the controversy over such centres has subsided as the evidence has shown the benefits of such facilities – and that has taken 10 years for the Sydney one. Sydney’s is only one of 91 such centres worldwide – I think they are catching on and for good reason – they work. (But there is still the legal anomaly of requiring people to break the law to obtain their own drugs to bring in to the centre.)

Do you think Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu will eventually agree to a safe injecting room in Richmond?
I don’t know – but a change of approach by the government has been made more difficult by its earlier flat rejection of the idea.

Other Opiate Maintenance Treatments(OMT) in use or on trial in Europe, Canada and the U.K have had very successful results. Should other forms of OMT be trailed in Australia like slow release oral morphine, injectable hydromorphone, dihydrocodeine, injectable methadone and prescription heroin?
I don’t really know enough about such programs and their experience to be able to comment – but prescription heroin has produced excellent health, social and law enforcement results, for example, in Switzerland and we should certainly trial that.

A report was just released titled, Randomised controlled trial of dexamphetamine maintenance for the treatment of methamphetamine dependence. As far as I can obtain, it was not a publicly known trial but the results were spectacular. Methamphetamine/amphetamines are not technically addictive but can result in severe physiological dependancy. What are your thoughts on this compared to substitution programs for addictive drugs like opioids/heroin?
This is really for a medico to comment on; but I suppose that addiction and dependence, both being health consequences, should be treated, if appropriate, by controlled substitution programs.

Do you have any predictions for the future of Australia’s drug policy over the next 10 years?
Not a prediction, but a hope that, slowly, the public voice will grow strong enough to give politicians the courage to explore alternatives, even on a trial basis in some areas. A Portugal approach could be a good beginning. One of our major difficulties, however, is obeisance to the USA and the interpretation given to some international instruments that are said to prevent us from following a more rational course.

What are you're thoughts on the story of Jade Lewis at the IQ² debate? Do you feel she actually put forward any valid reasons not to legalise all drugs or was it simply a sad story that luckily had a positive conclusion?
As I said just before she spoke, if our approach had been adopted, then she may not have had to make the journey that she did. She told her story, that’s all. It is a sad story (that many more people could tell in one way or another) but in her case it has had a better conclusion than some others and she is to be praised for the work that she is now doing in community education. But there is nothing in the story that speaks against the decriminalisation, regulation, control and taxation of all drugs. Indeed, she demonstrated just how easy it is to obtain drugs, become addicted to them and stay on them under the regime of prohibition without being able to access proper assistance and treatment. If anything, hers was a strong argument against continuation of the present approach.

Before the IQ² debate started, 32.3% of the audience were undecided on whether all drugs should be legalised. After the debate, only 8% remained undecided. Those against increased by 2.1% while those in favour rose by 22.2% That's a difference of about 10-1 who changed their mind after the debate. Does this surprise you?
No. A rational audience.

What single factor do you consider to be the most convincing reason to change our drug policy.
Two factors – the futility and wastefulness of trying to use the criminal law to control or change a well-entrenched market; and the incidental harms that our present policy is causing. Isn’t one description of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result [or something like that]?

Gary Christian from the anti-drug NGO, Drug Free Australia (DFA) regularly states that the government's 2007 household survey shows that 97% of Australians do not want drugs legalised. Do you think that most of the public who naturally reject drug legalisation after constantly being bombarded with most of the media distorting the facts about drugs and politicians pushing their "Tough on Drugs" message might vote differently if they attended the IQ² debate where facts, history and evidence are presented in an intelligent and logical manner?
The answers obtained in surveys are influenced by the way in which the questions are asked, as any pollster well knows. “Legalised” is a word that can mean many different things to different people; but in the mind of the ordinary citizen it may well mean releasing all restraints so as to proliferate the unattractive aspects of drug use that are mostly hidden (or at least suppressed) at present. And there are different requirements for different drugs that would be taken into account in any move to legalisation (or decriminalisation), which was probably not canvassed in the survey.
The answer to your question is yes. People generally are rational beings, open to persuasion by evidence and logical argument – juries act that way every day. The public should not be underestimated and all they need is accurate information on which to base proper conclusions.

A similar event to the IQ² debate, The Festival of Dangerous Ideas took place at the Sydney Opera House in October 2009 and included the topic, Make All Drug Use Legal. One of the speakers, lawyer, Greg Barns blamed the media for most of the problems associated drugs. Was Greg Barns right to blame the media considering the level of misinformation, drug hysteria and propaganda they produce daily?
I am not quite sure I understand the question. I am not familiar with the Barns presentation or how he put his argument. It is not the media that causes drug problems, it’s the law. But you are right in that much of the tabloid media, especially, misinforms the public.

What do you think of politicians being labelled “Soft on Drugs” when they suggest alternatives to current drug strategies?
It’s a childish and simplistic reaction that really says nothing. It’s just a slogan that the user intends to be offensive. This is not a matter of being hard or soft, it’s a question of being smarter and more effective in the way we address a problem in society. The messages that should be sent when alternatives are suggested are that: 1. When we do something that does not produce good outcomes, we should have the sense to admit, on the basis of that experience, that we may be able to do better and to revise our course; 2. When we can see that what we are doing is actually creating harm, we have an obligation to try to prevent that harm and to proceed differently; and 3. Some things are immutable – there will always be a demand by humans for reality-altering substances and there will always be a supply. We need to control that market (and its participants) and remove the incentive for a black market to exist (ie criminal profits).

Finally, if you were Prime Minister Nicholas Cowdery and you could change one law relating to drug policy or drug treatment, what would it be?
[The party system would probably defeat me] – but changing the present approach requires attention to a whole suite of laws in a coordinated and careful, thorough way, proceeding one step at a time. There would be some trial and error – but progress cannot be achieved in that way unless there is a trial.

Related Articles (Q&A)

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Diary: Suicide and Beyond

DIARY: June 2011

I tried to kill myself last week. 

I failed.

Should I be glad I failed or disappointed? That answer changes from day to day depending on how I feel. The mixed emotions are profound but how the hell do you put it into words? How do you describe a feeling or emotion with simple text? I don't think you can.

I have "clinical depression", whatever that is. I always just thought depression was ... well, depression. I assumed there were different levels but apparently there's also different types: clinical depression, chronic depression, dysthymia, bipolar disorder and more. I didn't use to worry too much about it and thought that everyone gets depressed at some time. It's just part of life. Boy, has that changed.

[...] Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Individuals with clinical depression are unable to function as they used to. Often they have lost interest in activities that were once enjoyable to them, and feel sad and hopeless for extended periods of time. Clinical depression is not the same as feeling sad or depressed for a few days and then feeling better. It can affect your body, mood, thoughts, and behavior. It can change your eating habits, how you feel and think, your ability to work and study, and how you interact with people. People who suffer from clinical depression often report that they "don't feel like themselves anymore."

I have to admit I don't feel comfortable writing about this and have only told one person. Since most people I know don't have any idea I write this blog, I am able to open up more here and actually tell it like it is. For over a week, I have spoken to most of my family and some friends and told them I'm not feeling the best and having a bad week but that's as far as I have gone.

The leading cause of death for Australian men under 44 is suicide. The leading cause of death for Australian women under 34 is suicide. And more people die by suicide each year than they do on the road.

Strangely, the main reason for not telling my family and feeling hesitant in writing this is that I feel silly. I can't even accomplish something as simple as knocking myself off. I have always thought that those who fail at a suicide attempt didn't really try hard enough and weren't fully committed to ending it all. Is that what I did? Should I have taken more pills and did I purposely take less than what was needed to finish the job? Probably. If I was really serious, why would I worry if I would have enough meds left for the rest of the week? Why didn't I just take them all? At the time, I was convinced I took enough to kill a horse or two but I still had in the back of my mind what would happen if I failed.

Clinical depression is not a sign of personal weakness, or a condition that can be willed away. Clinically depressed people cannot "pull themselves together" and get better. In fact, clinical depression often interferes with a person's ability or wish to get help. Clinical depression is a serious illness that lasts for weeks, months and sometimes years. It may even influence someone to contemplate or attempt suicide.

So what happened in the days following my attempt? Did I feel relief or regret? Did circumstances magically resolve themselves? Did some good news come in or something positive happen that helped me get on with life? Absolutely not. In fact, it was the start of a horrific week which got worse each day. I didn't get paid by a client as promised, I was now short of my daily meds, ex Mrs Wright was home sick all week - constantly angry and demanding - and on it went. I kept remembering the day after trying to escape my shitty existence. Instead of being escorted through some beautiful, ornamented gates by an old man with a white beard or sitting at the bottom of the ocean because I had been reincarnated as a mud crab, I instead woke up as usual to some seriously annoying birds trying to tweet and my dogs by my side. Maybe I would have tried harder if I knew what was yet to come.

Well, it's a new week and most of the pressing issues have been resolved. I am trying harder than normal to stay balanced and get ready for my move to the coast. Unfortunately though, the depression is more severe than normal and each day is really a struggle. I have decided that maybe I do need to see a shrink and explore the possibilities of confronting my depression. My doctor is convinced that seeing a shrink would be pointless for me but what have I got to lose? If there is one thing that I am certain of, that is unless something changes, there will not be a follow up article to my next attempt.

Silence On Suicide Does More Harm Than Good
by Lainie Anderson
June 2011

In July last year, the South Australian Coroner Mark Johns called for suicide statistics to be published alongside the road toll. Since that time, just over 100 South Australians have died on the state’s roads. More than 180 South Australians have killed themselves.

Despite Mr Johns’ call, suicide statistics remain unpublished. The topic by and large remains taboo. And desperate people keep taking their own lives because their mental illness isn’t properly treated, or because friends and family don’t have the confidence or the skills to raise this most delicate of subjects.

As a community, we’ve got to stop being so squeamish about suicide. It’s the single biggest cause of death for Australian females aged 15-34 and males 15-44. Latest statistics show that 2130 Australians took their own lives in 2009, compared to 1417 road deaths for the year and 1837 from skin cancer.

Yet while $7m is spent on mass media advertising to curb SA’s road toll alone, there’s nothing similar to curb the incidence of suicide. So what needs to change?

Experts like Mr Johns and SA’s Public Advocate John Brayley says the task is two-fold: prevention and awareness.

Around 70 per cent of suicides are associated with depression, so reducing the stigma of mental illness and expanding services are fundamental. Most other suicide victims are in a ‘situational crisis’, so timely access to crisis counseling is also essential.

Family First MLC Robert Brokenshire says SA’s services are simply too haphazard, and this week called for a Suicide Prevention Coordinator to be funded in Thursday’s State Budget.

In response, Health Minister John Hill revealed that his department has for some time been preparing a Suicide Prevention Strategy “to focus our efforts on the things that will have the most impact”.

It will include a new Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee, reporting directly to the Minister on the success (or otherwise) of measures, any gaps in services and ways to better coordinate government agencies.

That’s the first we’ve heard of it – and it’s a welcome initiative. But it still leaves us with the mammoth task of raising awareness and reducing the stigma of suicide in the wider population.

With church ministers and chaplains dealing with suicide on a weekly basis, the Moderator of the Uniting Church in South Australia, Rev Rob Williams, agrees. He too is calling for urgent action on suicide awareness as well as prevention, and the Uniting Church is now forming its own taskforce to drive the issue forward.

“There’s got to be more that we can do and we think a good place to start is lifting the lid on the secrecy surrounding suicide. Certainly, a sensitive and gentle shift in the way media look at these issues is something that we are very interested in.”

The Australian Press Council is interested too. It’s currently reviewing its 10-year-old reporting guidelines on suicide and will release the findings later this month.

A major issue, of course, remains the fear of copy-cat suicides. Some still believe that instead of preventing suicides, increased reporting will merely cause more. But with so many Australians taking their own lives, it’s time to mature our thinking on that score.

People who are truly intent on killing themselves have an abundance of information to make it happen – not least in the online world where traditional media guidelines are ignored with gusto.

The mainstream media has a responsibility to continue treating suicides carefully and sensitively, but surely one way to achieve that is by publishing regular figures (similar to the road toll) to keep the issue high on the public agenda.

As a community, we’re then sending a message that – like road deaths – suicides are preventable and we’re committed to curbing the toll. That’s got to be better than pretending 2000 Australians aren’t killing themselves each year.

Lifeline offers 24 hour crisis support on 13 11 14

Many Chronic Pain Sufferers Ponder Suicide
Verity Edwards
June 2011

A NATIONAL study on chronic pain shows a third of the population suffers from the malady and, of those, 20 per cent have considered suicide and 5 per cent have attempted to take their lives.

Chronic Pain Australia president Coralie Wales, who commissioned the study of 2500 people, said most sufferers also felt stigmatised, believing they were perceived as drug addicts or bludgers. "The more stigmatised you feel, the more likely you are to commit suicide," she said.

Chronic pain is defined as that which persists for more than three months. It affects about 6.5 million Australians.

A 2007 Access Economics report estimated chronic pain cost the nation $34.3 billion a year in lost productivity and on health service demands.

Ms Wales said South Australia treated chronic pain sufferers worse than any other state, because they were forced to collect their medication from the Drug and Alcohol Services, alongside drug addicts.

"In South Australia it seems that anyone who takes an opiate seems to be a suspicious character and you have to be fearful of opiates," she said.

Ms Wales said the situation was so bad that chronic pain sufferers were forced to move interstate for better access to medication.

Colin Shaw moved from Adelaide to Brisbane a year ago to seek treatment for his cluster headaches. "Collecting medication alongside addicts was one of the most inhumane things. It was soul-destroying," he said.

He has attempted suicide four times.

Mr Shaw, 49, has suffered from up to six cluster headaches a day for more than 20 years. He says they are 10 times worse than migraines.

"It's like you've got a fire hose going through a small tube. It's like you're literally bursting, combined with a knife behind your eye," he said.

"It's just cost me so much. It's cost me my family, my social life, my work as a photographer. Everything is gone."

Related Articles:

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Pollie Waffle

Blah blah blah ...
Image by Petula Bloomfield 
Have you ever wondered what happens when you send a letter to a politician? Do they read it? Do one of their lackeys reply for them or do they just bin your letter? 

I must admit that I have received some responses from politicians that have been answered personally. In general though, most responses from politicians are stock standard replies that somehow miss the point of your concerns and end up being promotional advertising for their party. 

I wrote to the Victorian Minister for Mental Health, The Hon. Mary Wooldridge MP and voiced my concerns that she was a keynote speaker at the 2011 VAADA Conference. (VAADA - The Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association Inc.). I thought it was a bit strange for a politician to speak at a conference held for professionals in the AOD industry considering her support for banning drug paraphernalia which most members of VAADA opposed.

My letter to Minister Wooldridge simply asked what her response would be if most of the experts at the VAADA conference either told her and/or presented evidence that the government's proposed banning of drug paraphernalia would do more harm than good. A question that really only has one answer. 

I implore you to ask for the views of those who deal with drug issues on a daily basis. The 2011 VAADA Conference is an ideal event to find out what the professionals think about banning bongs. If anyone has an insight into the issue it’s those attending the conference. They are experts who spend their lives researching and dealing with drugs. 
-Extract from my letter to Victorian Minister for Mental Health, The Hon. Mary Wooldridge MP

The theme of the conference was Transitions: people, policy, practice implies change and moving forward and the program will focus on the transitions and movements within the alcohol and other drug (AOD) field as we move towards 2020.

The conference asks the questions:
-What does the next decade hold for alcohol and other drug treatment?
-What are the current strengths and weaknesses of drug treatment?
-How can we reshape public debate about alcohol and drugs?
-How do we build a drug treatment system for the future?

How does Mary Wooldridge MP fit into this? The new Victorian Liberal government (with her support) wants drug paraphernalia banned although there is absolutely no evidence that it will achieve the desired outcome of reducing drug use. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence though that not having access to certain drug using equipment can help cause severe harm to drug users. Why would VAADA choose someone like Mary Wooldridge to be a keynote speaker when the theme of the conference is about moving forward with better drug policies and wiser practices for dealing with drug users?

First up, here is my letter to the Victorian Minister for Mental Health.

Dear Mary

I notice you are a keynote speaker at the 2011 VAADA Conference. This year’s theme is Transitions: people, policy, practice which implies change and moving forward.

I would like to know your reaction if most of the attendees agree that our current drug policies have failed and need to change. Will you change your decision to ban drug paraphernalia (cannabis smoking equipment) if most of the attendees think it is a mistake? Will you take into account their views if they feel that banning bongs will not deter drug use and may actually cause serious harm or even death to some people? 

Most importantly, will you reconsider your position if the latest quantified research clearly shows that what they say is true? Will you base your decision on evidence or anti-drug rhetoric and popular myths? 

The fact is, most of the public do not want bongs banned. Either do most health professionals, drug experts and AOD workers. Although the general public mightn’t solely base their decision on scientific data, health professionals, drug experts and AOD workers do. Your decision on whether to ban bongs, needs to also be based on scientific data and the best available evidence. Currently, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that removing safe drug taking equipment from sale does not deter drug use at all. Instead, it just encourages users to make homemade equipment that when shared may spread HIV/AIDS/Hep C through cut or burnt lips. Homemade bongs may also produce poisonous chemicals from burning inappropriate materials and cause damage to the health of users. 

Trying to “Send a clear message that cannabis is harmful” by removing the sale of bongs is contradictory. Forcing users to make homemade bongs is already harmful. Removing bongs from sale is also counterproductive. Homemade bongs do not come with warnings or directions on how to get help. But including this information with any legal sale would target the very people you are trying to reach.  The legal availability of bongs does not determine whether someone users cannabis or normalises it’s use. There are many factors involved why people use cannabis but the legal sale of bongs is not one of them. Have you considered that like needle exchanges, a bong shop could give health workers direct access to users?  An elected official like you must do what’s best for the community and implement evidence based policies regardless of your own personal views or what you may think is popular. 

I implore you to ask for the views of those who deal with drug issues on a daily basis. The 2011 VAADA Conference is an ideal event to find out what the professionals think about banning bongs. If anyone has an insight into the issue it’s those attending the conference. They are experts who spend their lives researching and dealing with drugs. 

Awaiting your reply.


Terry Wright
The Australian Heroin Diaries

On April 13, 2011, a full three months later, I received a response.
NOTE: Her email contained a scan of a printed letter. I have retyped the contents.

Mr Terry Wright
The Australian Heroin Diaries
Dear Mr Wright

Thank you for your email dated 16 January 2011 regarding the Victorian Government's intention to ban the sale of cannabis smoking paraphernalia (bongs). 

The ban on the sale of bongs was a Coalition election promise made by the Premier, the Hon Ted Baillieu MP in January 2010. This amendment to the Drugs Poisons and Controlled Substances Act would see Victoria's legislation become comprehensive in banning all types of illicit drug paraphernalia, aligning with a ban on the sale of cocaine kits and ice pipes. 

Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug by young people in Victoria, and amongst regular cannabis users, bongs are the most common method for consumption. There is significant evidence on the risks of cannabis use to physical and mental health, particularly amongst those that commence cannabis use in their adolescence, and who use regularly. 

By banning the sale of bongs the Government is demonstrating their commitment to preventing uptake and reducing the harms caused by cannabis use. The Government will also provide improved community information and education about the ban and the harmful effects of cannabis.

Yours sincerely

Hon Mary Wooldridge MP
Minister for Mental Health

Mmmm. Doesn't really answer my questions.

The more I read her response, the more I am convinced that it is a cut and paste job from previous letters.

What are your thoughts?

2007 Election Letter
As I was writing this, I remembered about another reply I got years ago. It's a cracker!

Back in 2007 with only 10 days until the federal election, I wrote to the Shadow Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon MP. Assuming a Labor victory, I asked her if Labor was going to follow on with Howard's "Tough on Drugs" strategy and implement any of the recommendations from The Bishop Report: “The Winnable War on Drugs”?

Dear Nicola

What is the ALP policy on health & drug reform? I did not find any clear indication from the ALP website.

Is a new Labor Party government going to follow Howard’s outdated U.S. Lead ‘War on Drugs’ approach or is the Labor Party going to use health & science as their basis for treating drug addicts?

Is your party supporting ‘harm minimisation’ or supporting Bronwyn Bishop’s latest report findings. After Bronwyn Bishop’s report, I read so many negative opinions and nearly every health professional who commented on it, was scathing of the contempt The Prime Minister and Bronwyn Bishop had for harm minimisation.

All I ask is for Labor to follow the European lead and use science, heath and experts to determine this serious issue of drug addiction and not use fear or morals to enforce a law & order policy. It has not worked for 30 years now and in fact only drives up crime, repression and misery.

Terry Wright

What I received was classic Roxon and unadulterated election spin. But what stunned me most was that it was sent only two days short of election day. Read it if you dare.

Dear Terry

Labor strongly condemns illicit drug use and supports a “tough on drugs” approach as a means of protecting Australians from the terrible consequences of drug use and abuse. This is evidenced by a series of recent Labor policy announcements.

Labor has committed to a National Strategy to crack down on methamphetamines or “ice.” This included:
a ban on importing ice pipes and other drug paraphernalia; and
either further restrictions or a complete ban on sale of pseudoephedrine - a key ingredient of methamphetamine -  to minors;
work to restrict or ban the sale of pseudoephedrine over the internet; and
the extension of the special reference to the Australian Crime Commission to conduct a national investigation into the criminals engaged in the manufacture, sale and use of methamphetamine. 
Labor has also committed to boost Australian Federal Police numbers by 500 including tackling the importation of illicit drugs.

Labor supports the aim of helping those who use illicit drugs become drug free.  It must be recognised that illicit drug use and drug addiction in particular can be complex.   Despite the best efforts of families, Governments, health professionals and community groups such as churches, a small number of people still engage in drug taking behaviour. This is a tragedy that families across the social spectrum face.

How best to deal with those who are resistant to intervention is not an easy task but society should not give up on trying to engage them in treatments that will see them become drug free and minimise the harm they do to themselves and their families.  Labor believes that health professionals need to be able to use a range of prevention and intervention approaches and that these must be seen as part of a continuum that has freedom from drugs as an end goal.

Thank you for writing to Federal Labor about this important issue.

Yours sincerely
Nicola Roxon MP
Shadow Minister for Heatlh

Yes, it's real.

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