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We Should 'Just Say No' To Australia's Approach To Drugs

How many more people need to die before we change this flawed system?

16/01/2017 3:19 PM AEDT | Updated 16/01/2017 3:19 PM AEDT
The Age via Getty Images
Chapel Street in South Yarra is a popular Melbourne nightspot.

One man is dead and over 20 people have been hospitalised in Melbourne over the weekend after taking what is believed to be a 'bad batch' of MDMA (ecstasy) pills, again highlighting the drug policy paralysis afflicting Australia.

The responses to this latest episode of young people's lives having been placed at high risk are the usual ones. Search for someone to arrest for providing the pills and then issue a general warning telling people not use any drugs as they don't know what is in them. Richard Nixon and Nancy Reagan would be proud.

The advice that people don't know what is in the drugs they are taking is correct but is based on a false premise that this information alone will suffice to deter people from taking the drugs. I guess it is safe to assume that campaigns that tell people to not drink too much, not to drive fast, to eat healthily and not overeat, not to smoke and so forth are all singularly effective on their own and require no further policy interventions to assist people in these decisions. They have been told "do as we tell you" -- so it's case closed.

To get some perspective, just think about whether it would be reasonable to ban alcohol at spring carnivals or New Year's Eve celebrations because people may get into trouble or do something that may hurt themselves.

The alternative is to accept that people take risks, that people do things that may not always be in their best interests, and then put policies in place to mitigate these risks. Pill testing is, of course, one alternative to help people understand just what it is they are considering putting in their bodies.

To get some perspective, just think about whether it would be reasonable to ban alcohol at spring carnivals or New Year's Eve celebrations because people may get into trouble or do something that may hurt themselves. Is the current approach to manage the events with crowd control, safety precautions, responsible service of alcohol and additional transport a better option? Of course it's better to live in the real world where there is an acceptance that risk exists and programs and protocols are in place to reduce that risk. It does not mean that we condone the behaviour, but it does not condemn it either.

We need a similarly pragmatic approach when it comes to currently illicit drugs.

We deserve policies and programs that are the most effective in reducing drug-related harm and governments should be obliged to introduce them.

Imagine if you went to see your doctor and they gave you two options for a solution to a health problem -- the first is the solution used 20 years ago, while the second option is a solution based and developed on evidence accumulated over the past 20 years. Which would you choose? Or perhaps more appropriately, which solution would you expect to be provided?

Such is the impasse in drug policy, that although the evidence is quite clear about the harms and there are clear solutions, change seems beyond us.

In the event that the evidence does not sway a belief in the 'Just Say No' view then we can only hope that those with the authority to allow a trial of pill testing and other harm-reduction programs have the decency to speak to families that have lost one of their children forever because of a drug overdose. What they will find are people devastated by loss and grief. People trying to find some sense of how we could fail our children so badly. People, who as Tony Trimingham, the founder of Family Drug Support has written, believed it was something that always happened to someone else's family, not theirs.

This plea is not about permitting people to use drugs whenever they want -- it is a plea for evidence-based harm reduction policies and programs.

Harm reduction, it must always be remembered, can guide and encompass prevention, education and treatment. It even encompasses abstinence. And if you find that hard to accept, pay a visit to the website of the innovative programs at We Help Ourselves. This is an organisation that provides residential therapeutic community rehabilitation to hundreds of people each year and incorporates harm reduction into its services without any great fanfare, difficulty or fuss. It simply understands the primary importance of saving lives, as well as providing effective, evidence-based treatment.

This plea is not about permitting people to use drugs whenever they want -- it is a plea for evidence-based harm reduction policies and programs, and innovation to be placed at the front and centre of drug policy -- not the current, albeit well-intentioned, but misguided belief in old and failing policies.

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