Friday, 19 March 2010

Drug Hysteria Explodes in State Politics

First we had Mike Rann and his deceitful attempt to criticise Isobel Redmond for telling the truth about ecstasy and now the Tasmanian Labor Party is wrongly hammering The Greens for wanting to legalise and regulate heroin. The problem is that The Greens’ policy does NOT support legalising any drug let alone heroin. Oops. The Greens changed their drug policy to be more mainstream before the last Tasmanian election in 2006. So what is it with Labor and the sudden burst of sleazy politics and drug hysteria. It’s usually the Libs who are masters of moral panic over the issue of drugs.

Well, it appears that drug hysteria might be in fashion at the moment. State premiers; Mike Rann, Colin Barnett, Jon Stanhope and David Bartlett are all responsible for lashings of drug hysteria over the last few months. The Barlett Labor government in Tasmania were caught quoting The Greens out of context and this comes just days after the SA Rann Labor government did the same. The ACT Stanhope government recently criticised the Liberal opposition for proposing “safe limits” on certain drugs when being tested for drug-driving. Much like 0.05 being the maximum blood-alcohol content for drivers. The irony being that Stanhope originally supported this logical and much requested requirement. Stanhope also quoted the opposition out of context by focussing on the term, “safe limits” which referred to the different impairment levels of different drugs. It might sound completely logical but what politician could resist saying “there is NO SAFE limit for illicit drugs”. And who could forget the WA premier, Colin Barnett and his abysmal attempt at rejecting science, research and evidence that the drug policy at the time was working as intended. As if straight from the Politician’s Handbook of Dodgy Policy Making, Barnett, attorney general Christian Porter and fellow Liberal Party hacks repealed a successful policy on cannabis and replaced it with a tired old rehash you would expect to find in North Queensland, Texas or Family First’s social policy.

What the political parties fail to comprehend is that drug prohibition and their “Tough on Drugs” rhetoric is causing massive damage to our society. What they do understand very well though, is that after decades of disinformation and scare mongering, it has also become a sure vote winner for politicians who push the “Tough on Drugs” message to an ignorant and misinformed public. Traditionally, only The Greens and The Democrats were brave enough not to play the popular political game of who’s tougher on drugs but since the near demise of The Democrats and a policy change from The Greens, there is no longer a mainstream party actively pursuing drug law reform. But there’s no need to lay in wait for a new radical drug policy to attack. This is Australian politics and you can just make it up.

Labor Campaign Gets Dirty
By Sue Neales
March 2010

THE State Government has resorted to a massive scare campaign in the last four days before the election.

The party's latest advertising pamphlet alleges the Tasmanian Greens plan to legalise heroin.

The Labor Party yesterday dispatched 40,000 of its "Extreme Greens" colour flyers across Tasmania, to be delivered by Labor volunteers into letterboxes.

The two-sided leaflet highlights what it calls the Greens' "plan to legalise heroin" and to give Tasmania's "worst criminals the right to vote".

The flyer tells voters: "Say NO to the Greens' extreme drug and criminals voting plans. Vote Labor."

The damaging claims against the Greens are accompanied by a large photo of a syringe and an image of a criminal's fists clutching the bars with his fingers tattooed "Extreme Greens".

Labor Party state secretary John Dowling claimed the Greens were hiding their extremist policies behind a moderate front, with Greens leader "Slick Nick" McKim deliberately keeping voters in the dark about his real intentions.

But Mr McKim said the pamphlets were desperate last-ditch lies being peddled by a panicking and dirt-slinging Labor Party.

He denied the Greens had any plans to legalise heroin or any illicit drugs and condemned the Labor advertisements as the "worst type of untruth".

He also said statements the Labor pamphlets alleged were said by Greens MP Cassy O'Connor in Parliament last year bore no relation to truth or to what Ms O'Connor had actually said.

But Mr McKim did acknowledge that the Greens party website reference to giving the vote to all criminals did not exactly reflect the policy he stated last week.

Mr McKim said the website could not be changed until grassroots Greens members had voted on the policy change but he described his position requiring judges and magistrates to make individual assessments about the right to vote as further detail of the existing policy.

Mr Dowling said more than 15,000 pamphlets had been sent to the North-West and West Coast electorate of Braddon.

Braddon is regarded as a pivotal electorate in the state election on Saturday, with the Labor Government desperate to retain its three seats and to prevent Greens candidate Paul O'Halloran entering Parliament.

The latest EMRS opinion poll released on Sunday showed Labor in danger of losing one seat in Braddon to the Greens.

The rest of the anti-Greens brochures will be posted to household letterboxes in Lyons, Bass, Denison and Franklin this week.

The Government is facing losing power on Saturday, with polls all indicating Tasmanians will elect a parliament in which neither Labor nor the Liberals hold a majority of the 25 House of Assembly seats.

In such a minority government result, the Greens appear likely to win five or six seats and to be left holding the balance of power.

Both the Labor and Liberal parties have repeatedly said they will refuse to govern in any coalition or joint agreement with the Greens.

Mr Dowling said it was clear from reading Hansard parliamentary debates last year that the Greens did have a plan to legalise heroin.

He pointed to comments made by Greens health spokeswoman Cassy O'Connor during a debate about amendments to the Poisons Act as evidence that the Greens wanted to legalise heroin.

It strings together comments such as "I accept that heroin is not the scourge on our society that it used to be" with another comment, "We know prohibition is not the solution -- it does not work".

But a fuller version of the debate suggests that Ms O'Connor's comments have a much less contentious meaning when read in context.

According to Hansard during parliamentary debate on the Poison Amendment Bill on May 27, Ms O'Connor said: "I accept that heroin is not the scourge on our society that it used to be, thank goodness, although today our young people are exposed to a frightening cornucopia of illicit drugs.

"Harm minimisation is the key. We know prohibition is not the solution. It does not work.

"In fact, for some, it makes the obtaining of a substance even more enticing."

In the same debate, Health Minister Lara Giddings also said she believed Tasmania had "little or no heroin use" although prescribed opioids were being misused in the state.

Mr Dowling said the leaflets were all about holding the Greens to account in the final week of the state election campaign, exposing what he called "extremist policies".

But a furious Mr McKim said Tasmanians were now presented with a choice, to trust either him or the Premier.

"They can either believe me or David Bartlett and I will put my integrity up against David Bartlett's any day," Mr McKim said.

"He is a premier who has continually deceived Tasmania but I am happy for Tasmanians to sit in judgment."

What the Greens drug policy says:
Support strong criminal penalties, including imprisonment, for the supply of illicit drugs and the possession of illicit drugs above quantities consistent with personal use; introduce disincentives for the personal use of illicit drugs to include diversion programs, compulsory treatment, education programs and penalties.

Tasmanian Health Minister Lara Giddings
Did you notice that the Health Minister Lara Giddings, said she believed Tasmania had "little or no heroin use"?! Not only does Giddings believe there is "little or no heroin use" in Tasmania but her ”expert advice” believes the same ... and according to her, so do the police. I am finding it hard to grasp that this comment actually came from a state government Health Minister. But it was not just her bizarre ignorance that was on display. It was also the disgraceful tactics from Lara Giddings . 

Cassy O'Connor: Minister has suggested in her contribution that Tasmania has little or no heroin use. I believe it is highly wishful thinking to state that Tasmania has no heroin use. If we do not, we are unlike every other Australian state, and our society unlike any other in the Western world. Of course there are Tasmanians who are addicted to heroin, and are using it frequently. I accept that heroin is not the scourge on our society that it used to be, thank goodness, although today our young people are exposed to a frightening cornucopia of illicit drugs. Our culture encourages binge drinking of alcohol, a legal drug. I defy the minister to prove heroin is not being used at all in Tasmania. That is "notionally insane".

Lara Giddings: I want to know what circles you mix in?

Cassy O'Connor: Just get out and talk to normal people more.

Lara Giddings: I am just getting my expert advice here, but I'm just a bit worried about the circles you move in.

Cassy O'Connor: I am very comfortable with my circle of friends; I am in touch and I would suggest that if you think that there are no heroin users at all in Tasmania, you are way out of touch.

Lara Giddings: I am just saying that if you think it is widespread, that is not the advice that I am getting. I am reassured that police and my agency would know if it was more than that.

Cassy O'Connor: Do you think that every heroin user in Tasmania comes to the attention of police and/or the authorities?

This is appalling behaviour from Lara Giddings and if anything, it just firms up my belief that the integrity and standard of politicians has reached an all time low. 

Giddings repeated the Labor line that voters needed to look below the "moderate and smooth" surface of Greens Leader Nick McKim, to the "bizarre and extreme" things the Greens are really promising.

"In one debate we actually had Cassy O'Connor saying we should be decriminalising heroin," Giddings said to the Mercury, four days before Labor released its shock leaflets featuring hypodermic syringes and claims that the Greens wanted to legalise heroin.

"I'm most concerned. Scratch the surface and you have a lot of extreme positioning there by the Greens."

The big question remains - how far is Labor willing to go this week to discredit The Greens when they might have to negotiate with them next week to form government. You have to wonder if Bartlett and co. have really thought this out.

Mr Bartlett refused to concede this was false or even acknowledge Labor had mounted a negative campaign. He said the Greens, who aspired to be kingmakers after the campaign, were evading genuine scrutiny.

''I don't understand why it is [that] when I'm scrutinised it's called policy, and when the Greens and Liberals are scrutinised it's called dirty tricks,'' he said.

The Media
The article above from Sue Neales of The Mercury is an important piece that represents what has been painfully missing for so long. When was the last time you saw a MSM outlet, especially from the Murdoch stables, expose a politician or political party for lying about drugs? Almost daily, we see the media beefing up blatant lies from politicians about the effects of certain drugs or their “Tough on Drugs” solution that only makes the problem worse. If it was any other subject, the media would screaming blue murder at the contradiction with scientific evidence and carefully researched facts. But when it comes to illicit substances, it seems that politicians are free to make any claim they want. Although there is a slow growing maturity to addressing the issue of illicit drugs, much of the media still exaggerate the harms, use worst case scenarios or resort to that tired, old cliché about “sending the wrong message to children”. What ever convinced The Mercury to allow Sue Neales to lash out and expose the slimy tactics from the Labor Party is greatly welcomed in today’s environment of moral panic and drug hysteria. I somehow doubt it will catch on but I am keen to lap up any great news article that shows what journalism is really about. Well done Sue and The Mercury.

Related Articles
Greens Poised As Kingpins As Tasmanian Poll Sours - Sydney Morning Herald
You decide: The drug debate - The Mercury
Labor ringing up the dirt - The Mercury


Kris said...

The best data available on the heroin market in Tasmania is the annual Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) injecting drug user (IDU) surveys. The IDRS monitors emerging trends in the use, price, purity and availability of most drugs, including heroin. In addition to a survey of regular injecting drug users, the annual data collection also includes a survey of key experts who are professionals in the field of illicit drugs and the analysis of existing indicator data on drug-related issues.

For 2008, heroin remained the most commonly reported drug of choice for IDU participants (52%). In 2008, over half (60%) of the national sample reported use in the preceding six months on a median of 49 days (i.e. approximately twice a week). Daily use increased to 18% of the national sample. The picture is very different in Tasmania. Only a small proportion of the TAS cohort (5%) reported using heroin in the preceding six months, with this use being very infrequent (two of the previous 180 days), despite a high preference for heroin as a drug of choice (25%).

Thus, the clear majority of indicators – such as the continuing low prevalence of heroin use among clients of the state’s NSP and the low median rate of use of heroin despite 25% of the IDU sample reporting heroin as their drug of choice – indicate a low availability of heroin in the state.

Court data, hospital admissions etc also support this conclusion. That said, it doesn't mean that Tasmania is not faced by significant problems around both prescription opioid and benzo-related harms.

tronica said...

Thanks for your analysis, Terry. The good news is that this tactic by Labor didn't work - the Greens broke records in their polling in Tassie and they won 5 seats.

Although the Greens aren't actively pursuing drug law reform in quite the same way they used to, they are pursuing evidence based policy and the treatment of drug problems as health (not criminal) issues. To me, this is still the best drug policy on offer in Australia, and could potentially include law reform if based on evidence. (Disclaimer - I am a Green party member)

Terry Wright said...

Thanks Kris for the info.

5% might be low but it's not "little or no heroin use". I dare say also that it's more than 5% in reality. A friend of mine lives in Tasmania and assures me the hammer industry is alive and well.

Hi Tronica.
You are right that the Greens still have the best drug policy although I am obviously disappointed. I bet if they were in power they might consider the drug law reforms needed though.

I see you're travelling around Europe. Lucky girl!!!