24/06/2016 5:56 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST

Drug Policy Based On Fear Means Everyone Loses

The opposite of how it should be.

"This is not about legalised heroin being available to anyone who seeks it."
Andy Clark / Reuters
"This is not about legalised heroin being available to anyone who seeks it."

Let's be honest -- there are some incredibly dry debates and mind-numbingly repetitive language that seem to pass for good politicking these days.

In contrast, arguments about drugs are rarely dry -- and there's a good reason for this. Such arguments are often a contest between evidence and beliefs. Nothing can heat up a debate better than challenging long-standing beliefs that don't stack up with the evidence.

To help get a better understanding of the Australian political drug policy views in the lead up to the Federal Election, Harm Reduction Australia asked Liberal, National, Labor, Greens, Sex Party and NXT officials to complete a short survey on which drug policies they would and would not support. The 15 policies and programs they were asked to consider ranged from existing programs such as needle and syringe programs and safe injecting facilities to pill testing and heroin prescription programs.

Unlike many policies which tend to rely on modelling and produce endless disputes about assumptions and bias, drug policy discussions can draw upon real life experiences and much evidence. But depressingly, rarely in public policy development does evidence so easily get overridden by personal crusades and unfounded beliefs as happens with drug policy.

A case in point is heroin assisted treatment -- a program that breaks the vicious cycle of poor health, crime and heroin use for people with long histories of problems by providing measured doses of pharmaceutical-grade heroin. Such programs respond to the poor results some people have after trying all other treatment options.

To make it clear, this is not about legalised heroin being available to anyone who seeks it, nor even for all those using it already. It is about a scientifically evaluated program that has been demonstrated for many years in many countries to markedly improve the lives of people heavily dependent on heroin, and at the same time reduce the crime rate and improve community safety and wellbeing.

It is a proven health, social and economic winner but it remains one with few friends in majority politics. This is not because of a lack of evidence. We see the same clear and positive outcomes experienced in Portugal since it had the courage to decriminalise the personal use of drugs and demonstrate benefits across a range of health and socioeconomic indicators. These results are not assumptions -- they are what is happening to real people in real countries; and yet there is still a lack of real political will for change here.

Our survey of the different parties provides some clear distinctions about which political parties allow evidence to guide their decisions and which parties ignore the evidence when it doesn't sit well with their beliefs, perceptions of the public view or focus test results.

What is more concerning is that after years of ignoring the evidence, or worse still by misrepresenting it to the public, some politicians and their parties now cannot express views that they know align with the evidence. I guess if you spend all your time scaring the public about drugs -- remember the stories of ice users eating their own eyeballs or various other body parts -- then it becomes increasingly difficult to advocate for policies and programs that don't fit the belief you created for the public.

Basically, everyone loses in this contest. The opposite of how it could be.

In the interests of providing clear advice, without fear or favour, the full results of the Harm Reduction Australia survey of political parties are available here for all to view. But if evidence-based drug policy is something you want to see in this country and is more important to you than public moralising, misguided beliefs and a fanciful goal of a drug free world, then this is your how-to-vote card to take with you on the 2nd of July:

  • Australian Sex Party & Greens (15/15)
  • Labor (8/15)
  • Liberals (7/15) and Nationals (7/15)
  • Nick Xenophon's Team (3/15)

Harm Reduction Australia advocates for evidence in drug policy, receives no government funding and is financed solely by its members.