Doctors Ask “What Happened To Previous Drug Reforms?” – 21 May 1997

The Australian Doctors’ Fund has called for a full evaluation of existing programmes designed to reduce the harm caused by drug addiction prior to any decisions being made by the NSW Government concerning heroin trials.

The Australian Doctors’ Fund assembled twenty-five expert speakers to discuss legalisation issues at a National conference entitled ” Drugs, the Law and Medicine” in 1989.

Chairman for the Australian Doctors’ Fund, Dr Bruce Shepherd, said “that a number of questions appear to be unanswered concerning existing methadone and needle exchange programmes both of which held out promise of alleviating problems associated with illicit drug use”.

“There were expectations that supplying methadone to heroin addicts would curtail the illicit drug problem and crime rate. It’s now time to ask how effective this has been before we start advocating new programmes?” Dr Shepherd said.

“If the programme has failed, why is it that extending the harm minimisation strategy to supplying tax payer funded heroin will now succeed?”

Executive Director of the Australian Doctors’ Fund, Mr Stephen Milgate also raised questions concerning needle exchange programmes.

“We have been told that supplying free needles to drug addicts (needle exchange) would also lower the problems associated with swapping contaminated needles. Now we are told that needle swapping is contributing to a high rate of Hepatitis C infection, so obviously, needle exchange has not worked sufficiently as it was hoped.”

“One of the main proponents of needle exchange, Dr Alex Wodak, is now on recordas advocating as far as heroin is concerned, “non-injecting routes of administration (sniffing, smoking, snorting or swallowing). This is a serious admission that despite being supplied with clean, free needles, many addicts choose to act irresponsibly and still swap needles”, Mr Milgate said.

Premier Carr is right to point out that in attempting to find a solution a bigger problem may be created.

Another cause for concern is that drug policy makers appear to have turned a deaf ear to programmes such as the Swedish Approach, European Cities Against Drug Addiction and the Ultra-Rapid Opiate Detoxification treatments. According to the Australian Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse, “There is no need to supply heroin addicts who wish to beat their addiction as Ultra-Rapid Opiate Detoxification treatments are working well in parts of Europe and the United States. This treatment is claiming a success rate of 68% of addicts breaking their addiction. This far exceeds methadone treatments and is vastly superior to heroin”.

“It is also remarkable that a very practical programme pioneered by NSW Police Snr Sgt Terry O’Connell (02 9339 5997) known as Prevention Conferencing (alternately known as The Wagga Police Model) has been largely overlooked by Australian policy makers despite the fact that it is being advocated for Canada and the UK. The model aims to bring drug offenders together with their families and victims to confront the reality of the damage that the offender is doing both to himself and others as a way of re-building personal responsibility for actions that impact detrimentally on an individual and those around him or her.”

“Other questions that require answering are the risk that dependent persons will switch or add to any free heroin supply by increasing demand for cocaine or amphetamines. The fact that most heroin addicts are multiple drug users cannot be ignored” Mr Milgate said.

The Australian Doctors’ Fund has been told by the Australian Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse that the proposed heroin trials, if continued in three capital cities for two years, will cost $42,120,000 conservatively.

Australians are likely to become increasingly concerned that more and more health dollars are being used to supply drugs of addiction when sick people are paying substantial amounts of money to buy pharmaceuticals which make their life bearable.

“There are many organisations of sufferers who get no Government funding to help alleviate the death rate from their disease, yet we are looking down the barrel of a $42 million budget for heroin addicts to continue their habit”, Mr Milgate said.

“Also of concern the fact that addicts in the proposed heroin trial will be allowed to drive their own vehicle without surrendering their drivers’ licence. Is the State Government prepared to compensate for the deaths and injuries that these addicts may incur”, Mr Milgate said. “It’s time to look before we leap and ask why the previous solutions have failed when we were told that they would succeed”.