By Michael Palmer
There is wide support for a pill testing trial and NSW Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame has added her voice to a chorus urging the NSW Government to commit to a drug summit.
The deputy coroner’s reasoning? Our current drugs policy is futile and likely to exacerbate harms rather than to alleviate them.
It’s hard to understand why the government won’t listen.
A majority of Australians, including a majority of Liberal and National voters, want to see a pill testing pilot too. So do medical bodies like the Australian Medical Association and Royal Australian College of Physicians.
I am not, and never have been, an advocate for drug use. I am, however, unashamedly a ferocious advocate for reducing the trauma and damage caused by drug use, for preventing the needless loss of the lives of people who take drugs, and for treating them with dignity and compassion.
The issue is clearly complex, but in order to improve it we must be prepared to deal with the reality of the world in which we are living.
In doing so it is important to recognise that there are no “bad guys” in this debate, only “concerned guys”.
There are no silver bullets
The deputy coroner had the courage to urge the government to overhaul its treatment of drug users. Now, all political parties need to have the courage to positively respond.
There are no silver bullet remedies, and it is highly unlikely that everyone will be satisfied, no matter what decisions are made and what future pathways are chosen.
Families grieving at the loss of loved ones from a drug overdose themselves have differing views.
Some have become crusaders for pill testing or wider drug reform. Others are strongly of the opinion that such moves would only aggravate an already serious problem.
Equally, some people with current or previous drug addiction issues support reform whilst others believe such moves will make the pathway to continued use easier and steepen the slippery slope to addiction.
Despite these differences however, no one is suggesting that what we have is good enough.
Standing still should not be an acceptable option for a compassionate and sophisticated society.
I support Coroner Grahame’s call for a drug summit, not to achieve any preconceived outcomes but as an opportunity for honest and open discussion and as a commitment to action aimed at improving the lives of vulnerable people.
Not a talk fest, an “action fest”.
‘Personalise the despair’
In any such dialogue we must be prepared to personalise the despair and suffering that accompanies each drug-related death. To face the raw reality of the consequences of our policy.
Angela Mollard wrote a powerful opinion piece in The Sunday Telegraph earlier this month, in which she explained the impact of the decision of a father in Britain over 20 years ago, to publish a photo of his daughter, Leah Betts, who was dying of an ecstasy-related overdose.
In part, Mollard said: “As his daughter lay in a hospital bed, slack-tongued and brain dead, a web of tubes coiled ominously over her face and chest, he decided to take a photograph of her and release it in the hope that other lives might be saved. The next day Leah’s life support was switched off.
And that day I decided I would never take recreational drugs under any circumstances”.
The reality though, as Mollard said, is that, nearly 25 years after Leah’s death, ecstasy is still Australia’s party drug of choice — and it is being taken increasingly in purer form. In many instances an ecstasy pill can be purchased for the price of a coffee.
We’re honour bound to do more
These drugs circulate in a totally unregulated marketplace. The quality, toxicity and level of contamination of the drug is unknown and, without external intervention, very unlikely to be identified.
Surely, as a decent society, we cannot be happy with this.
Surely no one believes that Leah “played the game and should therefore take the knocks”.
Australia has had too many Leahs. We should be honour bound to do whatever is needed to prevent more.
Michael Palmer is a retired Australian police officer and lawyer who was the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. He is the co-author of Law Enforcement and Drug Control.