Legal alternatives and consequences
Hamilton, M and Rolfe, J
For the Drug Rehabilitation and Research Fund
In response to the escalating debate about illicit drugs, crime and the connection between intravenous drug use and AIDS in Australia and overseas the Drug Rehabilitation and Research Fund Advisory Committee in Melbourne, Australia recommended to the Victorian Minister for Health that it organise an international conference on the legal status of various drugs. This committee was established in Septembe 1986 to advise the Victorian Minister for Health on the manner in which to allocate funds obtained from the forfeiture or seizure of assets and pecuniary penalties paid by those convicted of drug related offences. Legislation allowing for this was assented to on January 12th 1982 and came into operation on December 18th 1983 (Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981). The Advisory Committee is chaired by Mr Frank Costigan QC. and made up of representatives from the Departments of Health, Labour and Police together with key community organisations and drug and alcohol agencies. The prime aim of the committee is to allocate funds that support the development of community responses to the prevention of problems associated with substance abuse m the areas of education, treatment and rehabilitation, research, information and enforcement. Projects funded so far have been many and varied allowing for support and funding of innovative projects and research which might not otherwise be funded. Generally projects are funded for a maximum of one year and some preference is given to community based initiatives. Following four rounds of funding projects, the committee decided to address the growing concern and heightened debate over current drug control strategies adopted in Australia and elsewhere. After consultation with many involved in drug policy in Australia and overseas, the committee was keen to sponsor a conference which might raise the level of informed debate in Australia. The conference, Drug Control: Legal Alternatives and Consequences, was subsequently conducted in Melbourne, Australia, from November 10th to 12th 1989. Fourteen international and seventy Australian delegates were invited to participate. A consultative process with local organisations
and agencies was conducted and considerable background research produced a series of briefing papers for the conference. These included:
Two historical papers describing the development of legislation and treatment/rehabilitation in Australia and, to the extent possible with locally available documentation, a similar review of three other countries: Great Britain, the Netherlands and the United States of America. Other countrieE were included in the invited delegates to allow for a broader experience to inform the conference debate. These included: Canada, U.S.A., U.K., Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
Current Situation in Australia
- Indices of drug use and related behaviours, covering the numbers of users of various illicit drugs, people presenting for treatment, methadone clients, drug related crime statistics and prevalence of AIDS.
- National state policy context, covering background of the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse and the Victorian Strategy.
Following an analysis of much that has been written about the legal status of drugs, issues were detailed around which the conference was organised. A paper detailing these provided the framework for the conference. This included consideration of law and order consequences of current drug control policies, public health consequences and other consequences, such as community attitudes and fear, lost revenue, possible benefits of some drugs forgone due to legal status. The possible impact on drug control policy of AIDS was addressed and the last section deals with impediments to changing the legal status of some drugs. It was hoped that the conference would then address the possible alternatives and consequences of these in the context of current experience in a range of countries, with particular consideration of Australian drug control policy. The United Nations Convention Against Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances was cited as a possible impediment to change of the legal status of any drugs, a brief description of this 1988 Convention was prepared.
While examining the issues that delineate this debate it became obvious that there are a number of options available. The range of legal options for any drug were briefly detailed. While this has been done by a number of enquiries and commissions both in Australia and overseas, the options detailed here included: harsher penalties, prescription, licensing, regulation (with variations), decriminalisation (including discretionary non-enforcement, partial prohibition and decriminalisation) and free availability. Following the consultative process which led up to the conference, a report of community responses was provided for delegates. While some of those responding had addressed various options, many expressed growing concern regarding the apparent dysfunctional consequences of Australia's current drug polices.
The contributions made by delegates at the conference are in the process of being edited. It is clear that there is considerable debate and division of opinion regarding these matters. It was not expected to gain any consensus; merely engage in dialogue and debate. The difficulties with definitions and the divisiveness of the debate is evident. Much time was taken with people using terminology with different meanings attached. The most often used word was legalisation. Although there was only a short consideration of this option and only a few actively canvassing legalisation, this seemed to attract most heated attention. The impact of AIDS and consequences of injecting behaviours was keenly discussed. A range of alternative interventions were proposed in this context. Changes in the patterns of drug use, the difficulties of accurate information on illicit drug use; the consideration of various parties in the debate all with a different point of view...all of these were evident. With a range of participants including a number of politicians, policy people, lawyers, police, doctors and other treatment professionals and currently injecting drug users, the debate and discussion was lively and interesting. The flow on consequences of the legal status of one drug on the possible using patterns of other drugs were raised. Debate about the interpretation of the United Nations Convention and even local law ensued. The decision to invite people with differing views from the same country produced considerable tension and certainly indicated the depth of feeling associated with alternative policies. If the essence of any good conference is the level of debate which ensues, the range of ideas communicated and the motivation for future discussion and action then it is believed that this conference fulfilled these expectations. A paper summarising the conference and other papers will follow and it is expected that some of these will be available for the next edition of this Journal