Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cambridge Post: Radical Call by Top Cop

The Cambridge Post from Australia’s sole western capital city is a curious publication in the media landscape – the suburban newspaper remains independent and privately owned since its humble domestic origins in 1977.  Now I don’t know if such beginnings have influenced the Post’s particular brand of journalism, but an article in this week’s edition presents a refreshing attitude; seemingly free of sensationalism and primarily interested in simply presenting the stated, non-judgmental viewpoint of its central figure, Western Australian Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan. Interestingly, O’Callaghan’s son, Russell, was featured in Victoria’s Herald Sun when he was injured in an explosion at an alleged ‘drug lab’ – on that occasion, the Commissioner also seemed to avoid stigmatising language and participation in an established culture of blame.

In the Post front-page piece, O’Callaghan does the unthinkable and proposes a move away from a strict enforcement mindset and asks his audience to consider the importance of a preventative framework whereby disciplines such as “child-care” and “health-care” are provided equivalent attention:

“Police work is at the bottom of the stream, we pick up the debris and scoop it away,” he said. “They do not prevent anything getting into the stream."

And then to consolidate the mini-coup, O’Callaghan then lets us know to what degree he minds what others think of his informed opinions:

“I do not care much if government does not support me, but I like to put my opinion out in the public domain. It is a job where you walk a tightrope.”

It needs to be said that Limit of Shunt is excited that Commissioner O’Callaghan will be joining AIVL’s (Australian Injecting & Illicit Drug Users League) Executive Officer at the ANCD (Australian National Council on Drugs) boardroom table and has its fingers crossed that tea and pastry won’t be the only things exchanged amongst participants.

However, as is the modus operandi of this blog, there needs to be a little elaboration with regards to the following significant section of the Post article:

"Mr O’Callaghan said decriminalising drugs might save money on policing but more would be spent in different sectors and the community would have to be prepared to deal with people affected by drugs."

With all due respect to all parties involved, I just don’t want heavily-tanned surfer mums sitting under umbrellas on Scarborough Beach thinking that O’Callaghan’s cautionary statement is a fair reason for why changes to Australia’s prohibitionist drug laws should not take place. The matter also digs at the heart of the drug law reform issue and has broader implications that affect anyone who engages with the ‘War on Drugs’. Unfortunately, the complexity of such concerns will never be elucidated in the current media climate as journalists in the 21st century are always searching for bite-sized media ‘nuggets’ and it’s a shame that Walter Cronkite would join me in lamenting if he could still be with us.

Not only is the community already well-used to dealing "with people affected by drugs", but it is critical when attempting to conceive the progression of drug legislation that the following are considered:
  • Humanity has never experienced a legal framework whereby all of the drugs currently available have been licitly managed and we do not have the luxury of referring to the trajectory of other civilisations on other planets – humans are learning as we go with only our own history to go by. Not only does this require policy decisions to be well-considered and circumspect, but it also provides us with the freedom to be innovative, as we are not locked into any particular formula apart from the humanistic values that the majority of people try to embrace.
  • A review of Prohibition is in accordance with standard practice in all areas of vocation and legislation. It is a simple matter of reflecting on practice and seeking ways of improving on what has gone before – we are not talking about an incredibly complex concept here. Reflection is also something we all do individually and is a practice that indicates insight and strength of character, especially when a person re-evaluates their practice when things aren’t working in order to do better next time. That is all this blog, along with other supporters of drug law reform, is asking – matters have deteriorated significantly on a global scale so we are required to reassess, and this inevitably involves trying different approaches that can always be recalled or tweaked if they don’t make a difference.
  • Alternative approaches do not merely involve free and widespread access to all drugs, nor do they promise the allure of a ‘black market’-free, harmless utopia.
  • Alternative approaches need to be based in the fundamental premise that the use of substances to alter thinking, behaviour and experience is an innate feature of human existence and must therefore be managed accordingly.
In light of the aforementioned points, society needs to understand and accept that we have the freedom to be innovative and creative in the drugs arena. Once we have accurately comprehended the place of drugs in humanity we can then decide which drugs we legally manage, who has access to them, what are the conditions of this access, where such drugs are available, in what setting these drugs are to be taken, what options are available for people who have difficulty with a licit system, and so on. In the same way that prohibitionist laws are not set in stone, there is no exact formula for alternative drug policy – the only solid foundation that we need to work from is that drug use is innately human, and will therefore not disappear in the foreseeable future (there is a very, very, very, very, very strong likelihood that it will never disappear), and that we need to work from sound evidence rather than nebulous histrionics.

So it is quite likely that in a regulated framework a ‘black market’ will continue to exist, and ambulance call-outs will still happen, and police will still be breaking down front doors. Because the whole point of changing the drug laws is to attain greater control of yet another aspect of ourselves – I guess you could call it a step towards greater self-control. And as a consequence of this, there will be tight regulations and, as a result, there will be individuals who will not be granted access or unlimited access to certain substances for a range of reasons (e.g. age, psychological examination results, past history etc.), and these people may constitute patronage for an illicit market. But on the flipside, the illicit market will be significantly smaller and less powerful than it currently is, the people who are responsibly using whatever drug are not unfairly persecuted, the people who are irresponsible or who experience problems aren’t stigmatised and can access appropriate help, the impact on the broader community is lessened (crime etc.), virus rates for hepatitis B, C and HIV are greatly reduced and the dollars spent on the drug war can be channelled into the areas that Karl O’Callaghan has mentioned. With regards to the people who continue to break the law within such a framework, we can fairly state that such individuals require treatment or intensive support or rehabilitation or even imprisonment – you see, the problem with the current system is not that such responses exist, but that the ‘same brush’ is used against everyone, accompanied by inhumane and unacceptable hysteria that has resulted in death, suffering, misery and disease on a grand scale.

And if the trial of whatever alternative approach does not work then, as ‘best practice’ dictates, we can reflect upon what occurred and try something different  based upon evidence – in one respect, this is not rocket science ladies and gentleman, and we don’t need to make it more difficult than it needs to be. We have the power to pave the way for a better future because we are the only ones responsible for writing history and we should therefore embrace this marvellous privilege and make the most of it in order to have the best time possible in the single lifetime that we have access to. Don’t you think this is reasonable?  As for your good self, Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan, I wish you all the best in your endeavours with the ANCD and I hope that your son undergoes a trouble-free and enlightening recovery.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Australian Government National Drugs Campaign: 'Drugs - The real facts'

I am really loving this autumn. It's been so warm and in the dying moments of this year's Daylight Savings period, it was a pleasure to stand riverside whilst live Australian music heralded the launch of National Youth Week for 2011. As part of the Australian government's commitment to its young citizens, one of the stalls at the launch consolidated upon the Ecstasy. Face Facts. education campaign that has been plastered throughout the country alongside other promotional media asking us to get off the couch and bet on horse racing or to try new alcoholic beverages on the market. If you are not familiar with the 'seatless toilet' campaign, then this will give you some idea.

The stall was giving away show bags that contained a small assortment of items, including an awesome medium-sized water bottle, with the most significant one being a Drugs - The real facts booklet. At first glance, I was considerably struck by the booklet's omission of heroin, nicotine and alcohol. I'm sure it was a financial issue and because of the other campaigns that have been churned out, but given that the resource is selling itself as the 'real' facts, I was perplexed as to why one would leave these substances out. The next thing that grabbed me was the evidence of a more savvy information source with regards to language and updated terms. For example, up-to-date 'street' terms have been included and the content is more comprehensive, with the inclusion of scientific detail such as neurotransmitter names and research data excerpts. It seems that the people involved have decided that young people are more sophisticated in the 21st century and thus require a commensurate resource, which seems reasonable to me.

However, what these people seemed to have missed, yet again, is that the sophistication that is being catered for also means that in order for this type of education to work, one needs to present drugs for what they are and what the subsequent experiences of young people are. Also, many of the particularly vulnerable young people who really need such information will not receive it through this booklet - either they don't access information in this way, or will not have access to such information.

Even though there is one seemingly real dance-floor photo depicting enjoyment in the entire booklet, there is very little recognition of what young people really do witness or experience.

Under the section on MDMA, the best that is on offer is: "MDMA reduces inhibitions and causes users to become more alert, affectionate and energetic. Ecstasy starts to "come on" within 20 minutes of taking it, producing a euphoric rush that peaks after another hour or so." The remainder of the four-page section uses terms such as "blood pressure", "anxiety", "memory damage" and "horse tranquiliser". Don't get me wrong, as I agree that such terms have relevance to the subject matter, but we should have learned by now that in an overwhelming climate where drugs are demonised, the emphasis here is all wrong. We need to be focusing our energies upon the engagement of young people who are in the 'grey area', where they have experienced or seen friends experience pleasure, sometimes immense, with drugs and are consequently confused in light of the messages that they had received up until that point.

In the following sections on 'Ice', 'Marijuana (Cannabis)', 'Cocaine', 'Speed', 'GHB' and 'Depressants' a similar depiction is presented. For ice, there is "exhilaration" and "arousal" followed by a stream of information about the risks and harms. With pot, "relaxed" and "increased appetite" is offset with lines and lines of warnings. For coke, "arousal", "overly confident" and "talkative" are accompanied by four paragraphs of why the drug is dangerous. In the speed section "increased energy", "suppressed appetite" and "alertness" are presented as "normal" before the writers explain in the rest of the page why one shouldn't touch the drug, with a very prominent broken glass image in the top right-hand corner emphasising what is written. And so it continues...   

The point I am attempting to make is not new. In fact, this is a point that is so worn out that it drags at the heels of the drug education field like a piece of sticky litter on the bottom of one's shoe. Not only have the EXTREME dangers of illicit drug use seeped well and truly under our collective, societal skin, but I will be surprised if anyone, not just young people, even get through this booklet. Not only will people switch off after they quickly realise that the resource is only going to reiterate what they already know, but the thing is just not engaging, sitting in a space that has a tenuous connection to the actual life of the person in whose hands it sits.

We don't need to hear didactic drivel accompanied by sleek graphically-designed imagery. We need to hear from the young guy who tried ecstasy for the first time after swearing adamantly that he would never touch drugs, when he fell for a young woman whose best friend is a part-time dealer. We need to hear about the cousin of a friend who started seeing this guy who was in with all these cashed-up music promoters who take 'G' every weekend and have an "absolute ball". We need to read about the young group of friends who recently found out that the guy from Depeche Mode smoked a heap of pot when they recorded a multi-million selling album and then decide to try it for the first time. And we might need to ask the university student who tried cocaine after she was offered it at a party by people who shared her passion for Sigmund Freud, to disclose the connection between her decision to experiment and her studies on the Austrian neurologist.

Because the people who will read this booklet from cover to cover, apart from the annoying bloggers of the world, are concerned parents or journalists who will then treat people who use illicit drugs with even more disgust as they perceive a type of person who is so obtuse that he/she will use or continue to use a drug that has very little benefit and a seemingly endless list of drawbacks. This is without exploring the fact that the booklet provides no meaningful information about what can be done if drugs end up being used and something goes wrong.

It's funny, because one of the bands who played at the launch released the following lyrics with their last record:

"And we don't wanna get fucked up, oh no
 We just wanna get high!"

As a young person, I might actually learn more from those two lines than from the entire National Drugs Campaign booklet. Maybe rock 'n' roll 'aint noise pollution after all?

More info HERE.