Thursday, September 17, 2009

Australia and New Zealand

Yesterday one of our readers, Kosmos, asked a question in the comments section: "Not sure if you can help me here, but do you know if there is an Australian branch of LEAP? Or even a New Zealand one?"

This is a timely question as LEAP is touring Australia from October 2nd to the 27th. We don't have any speakers in Australia right now, but after the tour that should change. In the meantime, LEAP supporters can look to Alex Wodak as a leading drug policy reformer who lives in Australia but is known worldwide for his efforts to end prohibition. In addition to being a medical doctor he is the Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, as well as a board member of the International Harm Reduction Assocation.

In a recent op-ed piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Dr. Wodak offered hope to Australians who are frustrated with lack of change in their country:

"It is now clear that support for a drug policy heavily reliant on law enforcement is dwindling in Western Europe, the US and South America, while support for harm reduction and drug law reform is growing. Sooner or later this debate will start again in Australia."

As for law enforcement, there are some promising signs. In March of this year, the police commissioner in Victoria stated he was open to decriminalization if it was supported by scientific evidence:

New Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland says he would support decriminalising a range of drugs if the benefits outweighed the risks. In an interview with The Weekend Australian, he said he was "cautiously agnostic" about decriminalising drugs. He said police could not win the war on drugs. But while he supported harm minimisation approaches for users, dealers should face the full force of the law.

"For the people who are making lots of money out of it, I am absolutely in favour of throwing everything at them and locking them away," Mr Overland said. "But at the lower end, people who are users and, in a sense, victims themselves, then I think it's actually about finding effective interventions. I would be prepared to try decriminalisation of some drugs if there was evidence that was the best way to go. I'd need to be convinced. For instance, things like cannabis, if there was evidence that that was the approach that would lead to the least harm, I would support it, but you'd want to see the evidence."

Mr. Overland, who succeeded Christine Nixon this week, said he was yet to see such evidence but he was willing to be convinced about various drugs. "That applies right across the board," he said. "If you could convince me that legalising heroin ... if there was evidence that says that was the way to go, that that would lead to lesser harm to individuals and lesser harm to the community, I would be prepared to back it and try it. But I think you would want ... to be really certain about the outcomes, and you would want rigorous evaluation and be really clear that this is achieving what you think it is going to."

He acknowledged the political barriers to decriminalisation, but said he did not believe it was impossible to achieve.

In 2007, the first (and now retired) head of the Australian National Crime Authority, Don Stewart, admitted that drug prohibition does not work. He compared it to the American experiment with alcohol prohibition:

Damien Carrick: Don Stewart, when you were head of the NCA and you were investigating all sorts of people, you lived in an area where there were a lot of junkies who'd shoot up, and I believe you and your security guards would occasionally don rubber gloves, scoop the syringes into a box and send them to the New South Wales Police Commissioner asking him to do something about that problem. You were investigating drugs, you were investigating their corrosive effects on our institutions, especially our police force. But does prohibition work? I mean does our crime fighting approach work?

Don Stewart: I don't think so. There was a period, as we all know, when there was a total prohibition on the consumption of alcoholic liquor in the United States, and it did not work. There were bootleggers, it created corruption on a large scale, and it was a terrific failure, and it was always going to be a failure.

Clearly there is some support for reform amongst law enforcement in Australia.

As for New Zealand, the NZ Drug Foundation is probably your best bet.


  1. Thank you very much for this :)

    I am promoting this info to the interested parties in Australia.

  2. No problem! I am hoping to post more info about the tour closer to the start date, particularly in regards to event dates and locations.

  3. Here in Australia, this subject gets very little media attention and the attention it does get is always the same old propaganda. Schizophrenia is the latest boogeyman, even though the 2007 lancet study showing the link has recently been debunked.
    The NCPIC is a propaganda machine run by a crazy prohib' Jan Copeland, a supposed Professor and they basically promote nothing but junk science.
    Our cannabis arrest rate is on par with the US on a per-capita basis, possibly a touch higher, but we dont send nearly as many to prison thankfully.
    It is just such a frustrating issue, especially when you hear all the police services asking for more resources to fight REAL crime, when legalising drugs would free up 40% (estimate) of the funds and human resources instantly without costing one cent.
    One thing I don't hear of here, is the shooting of innocent people in raids on the wrong house for cannabis. I have read stories of such things happening in the States, people should NEVER have to be afraid in their own homes, especially when the danger is your own police force. I feel sorry for you guys on that one.
    Hopefully LEAP visit Perth in Western Australia on the tour, if so I will definately be there.
    Keep up the good work guys, the US will have to change their policy first, as we follow the US blindly on this issue.

  4. James - thanks for your comments. I suspect Australia is similar to Canada... we have a drug war that causes a lot of damage, but really it is a "drug war lite" compared to the extremes seen in the United States.

    Everyone - I stand corrected about Australia not having any LEAP speakers! Our Speakers Bureau director, Shaleen, let me know that we do have a speaker near Melbourne, but his bio isn't up on the LEAP web site yet. More news on this soon.


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