Friday, April 20, 2007

Drug warrior interrogates drug policy expert with unsurprising outcome

Once in a while you get to witness what happens when a prohibitionist ideologue and self appointed drug warrior clashes with qualified doctor, drug specialist and internationally renowned drug policy expert. One such incident happened earlier this April in the Australian Parliament when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, as part of its inquiry into ‘The impact of illicit drug use on families’ called Dr Alex Wodak to give evidence. The transcript has just appeared online. Wodak is the Director of drug and alcohol services at St Vincent’s hospital, has worked in the field for 25 years, has had over 230 published papers, helped establish the (Australian) National Alcohol and Drug Research Centre , sits on the board of the International Harm Reduction Association, and has been a consultant to the WHO, UNAIDS and the World Bank. He is also the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation .

Dr Alex Wodak

Wodak’s chief questioner is chair of the committee, Bronwyn Bishop. She puts on a display of almost unbelievable rudeness and venom, clearly having no interest in what her invited expert witness has to contribute, choosing instead to interrupt and talk over him, respond to his points with one word comments including ‘Disgusting’ and ‘Rubbish’, make ad hominem attacks on him and his colleagues and generally disgrace herself (even her fellow committee members are forced to reprimand her). Wodak, whatever you might think of his arguments, does himself great credit in maintaining his composure.

Bronwyn Bishop MP

It is a depressing example from the hardcore of evangelical drug warriors (who still, tragically, cast a long shadow over the international political discourse on drug policy) of the total lack of engagement in any form of meaningful debate with expert opinion that dares to differ from their own. As such the only value from the session is the intelligent comments elicited from Wodak and the schadenfreude of witnessing a rude and uninformed politician make a total fool of herself on the public record.

You can read the complete exchange in this pdf transcript. (The Wodak section is pages 88-110). Note: this transcript is an uncorrected proof .

Below is copied Dr Wodak’s brilliant opening statement (after which the fireworks begin).

CHAIRWe have received quite a lengthy submission from you. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr WodakI would. Thank you very much. Mood-altering drugs have been used by people in virtually all countries throughout history. Anyone who believes that this entrenched pattern over thousands of years can be simply and suddenly ended by government fiat is naive in the extreme. From time to time, countries prohibit certain drugs. Alcohol was illegal in the USA from 1920 to 1933. Opium for eating was taxed and legal in Australia until 1906 and was then banned. Heroin was prohibited in Australia in 1953. Before 1953, heroin could be lawfully prescribed by doctors in Australia. There is no pharmacological or public health logic to the classification of some drugs as legal and others as illegal. These decisions about declaring different drugs in different countries to be illegal or legal at different times have all been arbitrary historical accidents more influenced by politics than logic or science.

While there is a strong demand for a drug, a source will always emerge. If there is no legal source, illegal sources will emerge. Suppliers of illegal drugs compensate for the risk of getting caught and punished by increasing the price of the drug. Higher prices increase the profits made. The higher the risk of getting caught and the more severe the punishment, the higher the price and the higher the profit. The higher the profit, the more people who are attracted to becoming drug traffickers and the greater the quantity of drugs available for sale. This is the Achilles heel of drug prohibition. What has often happened in drug prohibitions is that dangerous drugs were driven out by even more dangerous drugs. In Asia over the last half century, anti-opium policies have had pro-heroin effects. During alcohol prohibition in the United States, beer disappeared and was replaced by wine and spirits. In Australia in the last seven years, amphetamines have taken over during the heroin shortage.

Whatever we may think about drugs, they are markets with buyers and sellers just like real estate or ballpoint pens or any other commodity. Access Economics estimated in 1997 that the market for mood altering drugs in Australia was worth $29 billion a year. Drugs that we call illicit accounted in 1997 for $7 billion of that $29 billion total. These days, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, few are now brave enough to attempt to defy powerful market forces. Only North Korea, Cuba and drug war warriors still believe that they can ignore powerful market forces.

Everyone else knows that sooner or later it is inevitable that a heavy price will be paid for trying to ignore powerful market forces. Harm reduction, a widely and possibly often wilfully misunderstood term, is a simple concept. It means that we focus primarily on reducing the adverse consequences of drugs, such as deaths, disease, crime and corruption. The alternative to harm reduction is use reduction, as in the war against drugs. In use reduction, we focus primarily on reducing drug consumption, whatever the impact on deaths, disease, crime and corruption. The most important point about harm reduction is that the scientific debate about harm reduction is now over. Harm reduction is recognized widely to be effective, safe and cost effective.

Five Labor and three coalition governments, in Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory, adopted harm minimisation as our official national drug policy in April 1985. Every state and every territory government since then, whatever its political hue, has adopted and implemented harm minimisation. The current federal government, despite its public stance, sensibly but unfortunately discreetly, continues harm reduction in several forms, including a $10 million a year enhancement of state-territory needle syringe programs, generous funding to support HIV prevention among injecting drug users in Asia, vigorously carrying the torch for harm reduction in debates within the UN system and by diverting drug-using offenders from the criminal justice to the drug treatment system. Needle syringe programs in Australia from 1988 to 2000, according to a Commonwealth department of health commissioned study, by 2000 prevented 25,000 HIV infections and saved up to $7.7 billion, while by 2010 needle syringe programs will prevent 4½ thousand deaths from AIDS. If this committee wants to scrap harm reduction in this country, you will have to take personal responsibility for the HIV epidemic that Australia then has to have.

There is growing realisation that relying on drug law enforcement, Customs, police, courts and prisons to control illicit drugs in the last several decades has not worked, is not working and can never work. In the decades of global drug prohibition, drug production and consumption has soared around world. It is now a global $322 billion a year industry, of which 26 to 58 per cent may be profit. Drug problems have got worse and worse over the decades. Governments have spent more and more taxpayers’ money. This is a typically high-taxing, big government approach. Many fiscal conservatives, such as the Nobel prize winning economist Professor Milton Friedman, condemn these futile attempts to arrest and imprison our way out of our drug problems.

What we have to do is redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue, with funding for health and social interventions raised to the level enjoyed by drug law enforcement. Criticism of harm reduction and drug law reform may be clever politics in the short term, but the war against drugs has been an expensive way of making a bad problem worse. If drugs are treated primarily as a public health problem, as suggested recently by Justice Don Stewart, deaths, disease, crime and corruption will fall, and I expect that drug consumption will also fall once the huge profits of the industry are removed. In the current system, criminals and corrupt police control the drug market. Regulating this market mainly using public health measures is the least worst way of responding to these drugs.

There are two ways of responding to difficult problems in our community such as illicit drug use. One way is to stress the community’s condemnation of the rejected behaviour—in this case, the consumption of prohibited substances—but place less emphasis on the actual outcomes of the prohibition. The other way is to focus on reducing the harms of the rejected behaviour—in this case, time to reduce those deaths, disease, crime and corruption, investing in what science shows us works while respecting the human rights of all of our citizens, including those citizens who still choose to use prohibited drugs.

Harm reduction and drug law reform are steadily gathering national and international support. Support for zero tolerance and a war against drugs approach is steadily declining. What we need now is to find ways so that good policy can also be good politics.

Blog on a recent paper discussing drug policy and ethics by Dr Wodak



Anonymous said...

That is madness, her comments on the full record are just plain rude.

Anonymous said...

Disgraceful conduct on the behalf of this rude politician. Her entire argument was simply to hand him the poisoned chalice of being named a 'legaliser' and letting the headlines do the work for her. She had no interest about the Doctors eloquent and evidence-based submission. The fate of a country should not be decided by one so reminiscent of a spoilt child.

Anonymous said...

Yup. Knew it was coming. Did the same to Margaret Hamilton. Bishops's freaking out that the federal report to parliament on the Australian Crime Commission calls for an end to prohibition - describing it as "good in theory... ineffective", and a boost to harm reduction.

It's been soundly postulated [Australia Institutes, Andrew Macintosh] this entire Inquiry into Drugs and Families is her tantrum of a response to evidence she'd rather ignore.

I'm podcasting the progress and must add, of the submissions - most call for more harm reduction and an end to prohibition, but some are akin to B grade movies. Drug Free Australia is an evangelical moralistic crusade, who simply lie, misinform and scaremonger. They sabotage policy and are attempting to drop needle exchange for free testing - arguing testing is preventative.

All this rubbish is linked to Howards Tough on Drugs, his enforced loyalty to US republican absentionists and indeed in an election year, we must factor in bilateral taunts accusing each party of being soft on drugs.

Howards attempts to saddle 'families' with the job of maintaining zero tolerance, is negligent in the extreme. No-one can define what a happy and worthwhile family is - but we seem to be hearing, if one engages in standard experimentation, the familiy is polluted, kids are crazy and parents have failed.

Almost two decades since we farewelled the nuclear family, it's really quite bizarre: death throwes maybe?

He's also started praying [like Dubya], ignoring human rights in our region and abusing Aussies to keep his poor mans War on Drugs - 'tough on drugs' running.

Critical thought seems to have been banned from this whole process.

Sadly, the users don't matter. It's votes for the pollies, and spy camera gods for the creationists.

Anyway... back to the mike I guess.

Frank Swain said...

That transcript makes for depressing reading. Childish, and these are the people who run the country...