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Sending a credible drugs message

  1. Balzafire
    View attachment 17044 The greatest flaw in Australia's War on Drugs strategy is that it treats the possession and use of illicit substances like cocaine and cannabis as a criminal justice issue instead of it being seen for what it clearly is - a matter that is more appropriately dealt with by health professionals and not police and the law courts.

    So when police, judges and magistrates and politicians bang on about the scourge of drugs in the community and how important cracking down on drug trafficking is, very few people are taking heed of the message. In fact, if anything, the illegality of substances like ecstasy and cocaine is what makes them so attractive to many people.

    Similarly, it might also be said that using the criminal justice system and law enforcement tools to seek to influence underage, and excessive consumption of alcohol, is also a manifestation of a policy that is deeply flawed.

    That Australian legislatures should move to treat drugs as a health issue by following the lead of countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic which have decriminalised possession and usage of most drugs and shifting resources into the health system accordingly, is borne out by a report released this week by the multi-government funded Drug Policy Modelling Program (DPMP) which is run by the Sydney based National Alcohol and Drug Research Centre.

    Media reporting on illicit drugs in Australia: Trends and impacts on youth attitudes to illicit drug use, examined media messages on illicit drugs over a five year period, from 2003-2008. It looked at how and to what extent news media messages on illicit drugs can influence demand and usage of drugs by young people. The research examined a healthy sample - almost 4,400 news items over that five year period.

    What this study found is that most media articles about illicit drugs "depicted law enforcement or criminal justice action, and emphasized the legal problems associated with drug use." In other words, if you mess with illicit drugs you could end up in legal hot water is the dominant message portrayed through the media.

    It is no small wonder that the criminal justice aspects of illicit drug usage are the dominant theme in media coverage of the issue. Police and governments spend literally millions of dollars each year pumping out propaganda about the latest drug raids netting yet another big haul of heroin or cocaine. In fact, these propaganda machines are an integral element of the War on Drugs strategy and have been so now for almost forty years.

    But is the community getting bang for its buck? No, is the answer. The DPMP report says; "Youth are more likely to accept messages that are deemed credible (e.g. use evidence appropriately, cite expert sources and use a neutral tone). They are also more likely to accept messages that are deemed meaningful," the report notes. And it adds that the more effective messages in the media are not of the law and order type but health and social portrayals because they "tend to be more powerful because they depict a more persuasive risk message."

    It is important to note that the DPMP report does not draw any conclusions about the current prohibitionist drugs policy settings but it is fair to say that its findings are consistent with those who argue that if we are serious about reducing illicit drug usage in our community we should focus exclusively, when it comes to users and non-commercial traffickers, on creating access for them in the health system and removing from our statute books all drug offences except for commercial trafficking.

    There are also lessons that can be drawn from this research about how government tackles the problem of alcohol abuse. Media conferences with police chiefs promising zero tolerance and large scale arrests are much less effective than credible messaging through media outlets on the adverse health and social impact of excessive consumption of alcohol.

    It is time Australia's political and law enforcement sectors started to base drugs policy on evidence rather than tired old clichés about crackdowns and jail time because when it comes to the target audience of these messages it seems to be a case of falling on deaf or sceptical ears.

    Greg Barns
    1 October 2010


  1. Code9
    Nice call to arms from the Aussies. The only thing I dislike here is:

    Drugs are attractive because they are fun, enjoyable and relatively harmless. Why not build an argument around that? Of course not one wants to say it because any public discussion of drug law requires the speaker to feign ignorance about the pleasures of drug use and talk about users as if they are some distant third-party.
  2. Terrapinzflyer
    Hard drug users escaping penalties and convictions

    USERS of heroin, meth-amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy are avoiding fines and charges if caught in possession of the drugs on the streets.

    The State Government has rejected calls to change legislation that waives penalties for users who are found with a "personal use" amount of drugs other than cannabis, if they agree to attend a counselling session.

    If they attend the Drug and Alcohol Services SA counselling session, which consists of a health assessment, no charges are laid and no record kept.

    Under the law, in place since 2001, a person can be found with up to 30g of opium, 2g of cocaine, 2g of heroin, 400g of methadone, 2g of methamphetamine or ecstasy or 20g of morphine, and not be charged.

    This makes the penalties for possessing small amounts of hard drugs more lenient than for those found in possession of cannabis.

    Since 2006, users found possessing up to 100g of marijuana, 20g of hash or one non-hydroponic cannabis plant have faced an on-the-spot fine of up to $300.

    11,500 people participated in the Drug Diversion Agreement between 2001 and 2009.

    The Government has rejected proposed changes to the Controlled Substances Act to impose fines on users, suggested by Family First MLC Dennis Hood in Parliament last week.

    Family First withdrew its amendment after the Government informed the party it was opposed to the move.

    "This is plain stupidity," Mr Hood said.

    "The message is, whether intentional or not, very serious drugs are being decriminalised in South Australia, which is an absolute disgrace."

    "It is part of the reason we are in such desperate trouble at the moment with drug use being one of the major factors behind high rates of violent crime, particularly in respect to amphetamine usage."

    Independent MLC and anti-drugs campaigner Ann Bressington said some users were not attending the counselling sessions anyway.

    "If they don't show up, nobody cares and nothing is done about it, so they get away without a fine and without having to front up to get information on the drugs they're using," she said.

    She said current laws essentially "decriminalised" hard drugs.

    "It's a double message, they're illegal, but you can have so much on you and we'll fine you for it, but that's all we're going to do."

    "This is about getting the message out there that drugs are unacceptable, and I don't believe we're sending a strong enough message to our young people."

    A spokesperson for Attorney General John Rau said the Government supported the drug diversion initiative, saying it had produced good results.

    "Evaluation shows the diversion system is working well," he said.

    "We are satisfied...the drug diversion initiative has substantially increased the number of people receiving drug education and assessment and there is a very high percentage of those who do not require rediversion."

    Drug and Alcohol Services SA said following the health assessment there was no further obligation on the individual under the act.

    DASSA spokeswoman Marina Bowshall said users were not required to proceed with rehabilitation programs following an initial assessment.

    "The only obligation for them under the act is to engage in that assessment," she said.

    DASSA was unable to provide statistics for the number of people who attended who proceeded with further diversion treatment.

    South Australian Council of Social Service executive director Ross Womersley said harm minimisation strategies worked in some but not all cases.

    "There's no doubt that there's certain people in the population for whom it is very helpful, very effective and cost-effective," he said.

    "However, there are some people for whom that doesn't work.

    "That's why the court has some capacity to make judgement around those things, the court does make decisions from time to time as to whether or not someone will be successful in that kind of process."

    "It's about trying to get to people as early in the cycle of bad behaviour as we possibly can, and about trying to invite people to understand the implications of their bad behaviour."

    Mr Hood says that while he has no problem with harm minimisation strategies, on the spot fines were also needed.

    "Harm minimisation has it's place, and we need to do all wee can to ensure addicts aren't unnecessarily harmed by their addiction, but we need to send a clear message that these drugs are illegal and cause incredible harm not just to the individual user but to society at large."

    From: The Advertiser
    October 04, 2010 12:01AM

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