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We Need A Level Playing Field For Illicit Drugs Policy

14/04/2016 5:45 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 09: Magpies players huddle during the round three AFL match between the St Kilda Saints and the Collingwood Magpies at Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 9, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

The recent unofficial disclosure of positive illicit drug tests for some elite football players has thrown up some interesting responses on the use of illicit drugs in sport. However, it has also served to highlight the inherent discrimination and unfairness of our approach to drugs in general, particularly for those that don't happen to be elite sportspeople -- which, of course, is the overwhelming majority of us.

When the news broke of footballers testing positive to a range of illicit drugs, there were numerous hysterical calls for the players to be named and shamed. We were told it was in the public interest. We were told that we had a right to know who these players were. Why this was such a matter of public importance was never really explained.

Advocates for a zero-tolerance approach to drugs felt emboldened by the outcry, using the incident to yet again push for such a policy in our football codes and across communities everywhere. As usual, the rationale and evidence for such a heavy-handed approach to selective personal behavioural and health decisions were in short supply. The harms associated with such an approach were also notably omitted.

In contrast, a recent article by Andrew Webster should not only become compulsory reading for all sports administrators, but also all those working in delivering drug policy in this country. Webster correctly identifies how some sports illicit drug policies are dressed up as supporting player welfare, despite actually failing to take into account their wellbeing.

If his analysis sounded eerily familiar, that's because it is similar to those who repeatedly say "we can't arrest our way out of drug problems" as a sign of their compassion and understanding for people using drugs, but then do nothing to actually change the laws to make such a response a reality and improve the lives of people.

AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has also blasted calls for a zero tolerance approach on illicit drugs, describing such a policy as insane and extreme. It's refreshing to see someone in a prominent, decision-making role who understands and accepts the evidence.

Such a stance also shows an understanding that "shaming and outing" a person for drug use not only causes irreparable long-term harm for that person, but also inflicts great pain and suffering on their families and friends. It is simply much more helpful to communicate directly with the person than to harass and alienate them. This is the advice we provide to families and friends dealing with drug and alcohol use. Talk to the person, not at them.

While no-one is actually asking for players to be arrested and charged for the use and possession of illicit drugs, it should not escape our attention that the same common sense or justice is not afforded to the thousands of people arrested and charged for using or possessing drugs in Australia each week.

There are, of course, differences between the sporting world and the general community, but the principle of proportionality of response still applies. Should someone taking a drug in their own time, not harming anyone or anything (other than their own health, and arguably less so than by taking some legal substances such as tobacco and alcohol) and by their own informed choice, be subjected to the harmful approach of zero tolerance? The answer is clearly no.

However, if your answer is zero tolerance, then advocate to do it properly and fairly. Everyone should be tested regularly (politicians, advisers, bureaucrats, teachers, journalists etc.) and if a positive test results, they should be publicly named, arrested, charged and have their future employment and travel opportunities restricted.

Is this really the sort of the world you want to live in? Where our lives and the decisions we make are to be tested, judged and monitored everywhere we go so that we appease the moral panic of zealots?

Back in the real world, reading such honest appraisals of drug policies in the sports section is very important for holding administrators to account, especially given that sporting worlds so often reflect what is happening in the wider community. However, it is a pity we don't see such honesty and understanding in the political sections of our media devoted to people who are not elite athletes. Their families, friends and communities would appreciate such respect and understanding as well.

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