Flat White

Drug policy mustn’t muddle health and law

30 September 2019

4:10 PM

30 September 2019

4:10 PM

With the spate of overdoses over the 2018-19 summer music-festival season, pressure is mounting on government to address drug reform as a health issue while maintaining strict prohibition laws. The ACT’s recent “look at moi” legalisation of recreational marijuana use will no doubt fuel this push for drug law liberalisation.

Health and policy experts naively wanting it both ways – for the integrity of the law to be maintained while overlooking those very laws when lives are at risk.

One only has to look at the previous methods of drug liberalisation and ‘health orientated’ policies, such as medically supervised injection centres, to see how these over-lapping laws create an unclear legal framework and weak legislation. Only complete prohibition can provide the coherent laws required to keep people safe.

Supervised injection centres are not common in Australia. The two that exist in Kings Cross, Sydney and Melbourne’s North Richmond were both constructed on a trial basis. These centres promise that entrants to the rooms are under constant supervision, and their product is tested to be considered safe for use. Once one has heard all that the proponents of these centres have to say about their benefits in reducing overdoses and so on, however, it’s clear that the institutions are essentially embassies for drug use – embassies where users’ criminal actions are protected from the rules which apply to anyone else who doesn’t live where they can access such costly health initiatives.

It’s the dilemma that emerges for those who have to enforce the law for whom the problem lies. It is the police who actually bear the brunt of shoddy laws. Where does a police officer draw the line on possession charges within these injection centre neighbourhoods? Would it really be worth the arrest if the suspect says he was on his way to use the substance at the ‘safe’ facility only fifty meters away? Probably not. Even though possession outside of the injection facility is technically illegal, the jury would experience the same confusion as the police officer, and most likely be lenient in its sentencing, hindering the efforts of the prohibition policies.

The same practical problems exist with pill testing. If a government does adopt a music-festival pill-testing program (tax subsidised of course) what happens if a user dies from consuming a pill cut with harmful chemicals for which the test kit had given a faulty safe reading. In this case, the state has failed to provide a service that it said it would. But the user is also a criminal; the activity which caused his death is in direct contradiction with the law. What if the test kit does work, it gives a dangerous reading, and the user takes it anyway? Who is to blame then?

Jay Roach’s The Campaign satirises well the desire for policymakers to please everyone. Near the start of the comedy, Congressman Brady is depicted campaigning among different local interest groups. When preaching to teachers, “Teachers are the backbone of this country”. When speaking with veterans, it’s the veterans who are the backbone. And so on for nurses, Pilipino carnival ride operators and other professions. The point is that anyone with even a five-year-old’s sense of anatomy knows there can only be one backbone for any particular thing. So Brady’s lacklustre and lazy campaigning is transparently false and would quickly be seen as innocuous diatribe. This is not new. Empty promises and slogans can contradict each other because they’re well … empty.

The concern is the new ability to actually entertain writing non-cohering policies into law. In doing so policymakers widen the populist net to attract the supporters of health-focused drug solutions whilst maintaining the pre-existing majority who support prohibition. But as with most attempts to find consensus in a mystical middle-ground, the results that emerge are impractical.

Acting as if drug use were legal by providing services such pill testing, while there are laws that make it illegal is just as illogical as killing only half a person as a solution to the capital punishment debate. It is as illogical as arguing that making it easier to consume a substance known to be harmful in the long-term will be good for an individual’s overall health.

Treating drug-reform as a health issue doesn’t make sense. Even though overdoses and health complications obviously occur under the prohibition regime, why would the first policy response be a complete backflip to new programs greatly untested?

The law should reflect what is in the best interests of individuals. It is not in the individual’s interest to abuse drugs.

Medical programs like pill testing and injection centres enable acts of poor health and are not reflections of what the law ought to be.

Samuel Chamberlain is a political commentator who lives in South East Queensland.

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