Cracking down on Cannabis

The Government is echoing alarmist reports of a cannabis and mental health crisis.

Abstinence or harm-minimisation? A clash of values is emerging, writes Bill Bush.

Police coming down hard to solve a health problem? This is just what the Commonwealth Government is calling for to improve mental health.

Even though the use of cannabis has declined by 37 per cent, the Prime Minister asked heads of Government at Friday’s COAG meeting to toughen their laws on the drug.

The signs are that this is the vanguard of steps to reverse Australia’s harm-minimisation drug policy in favour of one that puts a premium on abstinence and stronger law enforcement.

Other indicators of this shift are:

• Financial support for naltrexone implants that focus on abstinence combined with criticism of methadone maintenance therapy that focuses on stabilisation.

• A $600,000 grant over three years to Drug Free Australia to “advocate abstinence-based approaches to drug issues” while cutting the grant of the peak harm reduction focused Alcohol and Other Drugs Council to just one year.

• The enactment of harsh comprehensive Commonwealth criminal drug law overshadowing that of the states. It includes even minor possession offences under the label of serious drug crimes.

Since the Prime Minister vetoed the heroin trial in 1997, the rhetoric of his Government has been unfriendly to harm minimisation. He has said that he does not believe in it and his Government has played language games with the term.

Only last year the Commonwealth reaffirmed its commitment to “the principle of harm minimisation” in a further extension of the National Drug Strategy. This is defined so broadly that its three poorly integrated components of “supply reduction”, “demand reduction” and “harm reduction” allow governments much room to manoeuvre. Only the last component embodies the essence of harm-minimisation as it was originally conceived: “Strategies to reduce drug-related harm to individuals and communities.”

Nevertheless, the Commonwealth continued to support key aspects of harm-minimisation such as the provision of sterile syringes and methadone maintenance. This now seems to be changing.

For example, the Government is echoing alarmist media reports about a cannabis and mental health crisis.

Health Minister Tony Abbott and parliamentary secretary Chris Pyne have expressed alarm. Employment Minister Kevin Andrews wants to “explore its links with welfare dependence”. The PM has warned that “mental illness and homelessness was the price the nation was paying for ‘lax attitude’ towards cannabis”. “The time,” he says, “has arrived for us – legislators and parents – to get tougher.”

Source: February 13, 2006

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