Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Moxham-Hall on Drug Policy

The 21 May 2012 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald contained an opinion piece by Australia21 Honorary Adviser Vivienne Moxham-Hall, under the headline Policy on Drugs endangers youth.

The thrust of Vivienne’s article is summed up in her concluding paragraphs:

Our drug policy is a public health issue. It is criminalising kids and endangering the health and safety of the youth of today. My experience has shown me drugs aren't going away. It has shown me prohibition has failed.

Australia needs to look for a better way of dealing with drug use than turning a blind eye or punishing those who fall prey to the allure of the promise of happiness in a pill. Portugal's decriminalisation demonstrates there is a viable alternative that we should be seriously considering.

Access the full article here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

You can't stop the music

Both personally and as Chairman of Australia21, I am disappointed to hear that there is to be a spill of full-time positions at the Australian National University’s wonderful School of Music, so that the 32 full-time staff have to apply for positions in a reduced establishment of 20.

Disappointed because I think we as a society should be moving in the other direction – more engagement with music as high art – and I have begun considering how to frame an Australia21 project that could examine the social wellbeing benefits of the Venezuelan program known as El Sistema (“the system”) and how the lessons from that might be applied in an Australian context.

El Sistema is a publicly financed music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu under the name of Social Action for Music.

El Sistema is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela's 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras and 270 music centres, and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. While the organisation has 31 symphony orchestras, its greatest achievement is the 310,000 to 370,000 children who attend its music schools around the country where it is estimated that 70 to 90 percent of them come from poor socio-economic backgrounds.  The program is known for rescuing young people in extremely impoverished circumstances from the environment of drug abuse and crime into which they would likely otherwise be drawn.

Interestingly, it has always been located under the wing of social services ministries, not the Ministry of Culture, a fact which has helped it to survive several changes of government, and political persuasions of government, over a period of more than 30 years.  We are talking about classical music as a positive force for personal development and a benefit to society, not simply as recreation, important as the enjoyment aspect is.  As Abreu himself puts it:

Music has to be recognized as an ... agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values -- solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.

A detailed account of El Sistema’s achievements and history, including its spread to the United States and the United Kingdom, may be found in the relevant Wikipedia entry.  A video of Abreu talking about El Sistema on the TED website on the occasion of being awarded the TED Prize may be accessed here, and a June 2010 TED Blog post on the graduation in Boston of 10 young musicians from the the El Sistema USA program at New England Conservatory may be accessed here. These young musicians were to spread out to seven centres across the United States and establish “nucleos” – programs and centres that will “teach children to play music, believe in themselves, and reach for their dreams”.

I would like to see Australia as one of the next to take up El Sistema, but sadly, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. To mix the metaphors, we seem to see music as the icing on the cake, not as core business.  But for people “doing it tough”, and especially their children, music offers great benefits and opportunities.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Should Illicit Drugs be Legalised in Australia?

Post by Australia21 Board Member Dr Alex Wodak AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Alcohol and Drug Service, St. Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, NSW

The War on Drugs, waged for at the last 40 years, has failed comprehensively. Important leaders of the community in Australia and other countries now increasingly acknowledge this. Governments in many countries, including Australia, used a punitive rhetoric and allocated at least 75% of their expenditure in response to drugs to drug law enforcement (such as customs, police, courts and prisons). While identifying the benefits of this approach is difficult the many and major harms are self evident. The scientific debate about drug prohibition is now over.

For decades the global cultivation, production, number of drug users and number of different types of new drugs all soared. While the price of street heroin and cocaine in US and Europe fell by more than 80% in the last 20 years, the purity of street drugs has increased. But drug prohibition is supposed to make street drugs more expensive, less pure and hard to get. In an official annual survey, more than 80% of drug users in Australia said that obtaining drugs like heroin, cocaine, amphetamine and cannabis was ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’. The number of prisoners serving sentences for drug offences has grown as has the cost of drug prohibition to government, business and the community.  

While the global drug market under prohibition grew spectacularly, so too did deaths, disease, crime and corruption.  The number of heroin overdose deaths in Australia increased 55 times between 1964 and 1997. The difficulties of controlling HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs were exacerbated by the War on Drugs. Adoption of effective harm reduction prevention strategies was delayed and implementation slowed because of the entrenched commitment to a War on Drugs. The more intensively drug law enforcement was implemented, the more violent the drug markets and the more dangerous the street drugs.

The threshold question now is to re-define drugs as primarily a health and social matter. Funding for health and social interventions should be raised to the level enjoyed by drug law enforcement allowing the expansion, quality, attractiveness and effectiveness of drug treatment to be substantially improved. Funding should be allocated by governments to maximise the returns on investments. The human rights of people who use drugs should have the same protection as other members of the community. Change should be slow, cautious, incremental and carefully evaluated.

Cannabis should be taxed and regulated with packets required to show warning signs, provide information for those struggling to cut down or quit and provide consumer information. Hard-to-get but easy-to-lose licences should be required for major cultivation, wholesale and retail. Purchase should require proof of age greater than 18. Cannabis should be provided for medicinal purposes regulated like other medicines.

Needle syringe programmes should be provided in the community and prisons to maximally protect public health. Medically supervised injecting centres should be established where there are large drug markets spilling over into neighbouring streets, parks and supermarkets. Heroin assisted treatment should be provided to the small minority of severely dependent heroin users who have not benefited from multiple and diverse previous treatments. One area where drug law reformers and supporters of the War on Drugs agree is that 1 kg blocks of 100% pure heroin and cocaine should not be sold at supermarket check-out counters. There may be a case, if the results of the above are not considered adequate, for allowing the commercial sale of small quantities of low concentration selected illicit drugs. Australia has done this before. Small quantities of edible opium were taxed, regulated and sold lawfully in Australia until 1906. Coca Cola contained cocaine until 1903.  

The choice is between drugs regulated by the state or regulated by criminals and corrupt police.

Richard Branson on the War on Drugs

In a 26 April post on The Globe and Mail’s online forum Community Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, a commissioner of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, answers readers’ questions about drugs and why the war on drugs has failed.

In response to readers' queries, Sir Richard explores how global drug policy can be modernized and reformed.

Read his analysis here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A new national network for ecosystems services

The preservation of the essential services provided by Australia’s hugely diverse ecosystems has been a major focus of the Australia21 Board since 2002. Over recent years the Australia21 ecosystems team has put its efforts into promoting the development of a National Ecosystem Service Strategy (NESS) and a National Ecosystem Services Network (NESN). This work is led by Australia21 Director, Geoff Gorrie. The team includes Australia21 Fellows Professor Mike Archer and Dr Steven Cork, Australia21 Scholars Peter Ampt, Phillipa Rowland and Simone Maynard, Dr Jeremy Thompson, Dr Allan Dale and another of our Directors, Professor Bob Douglas.

Evidence of the diminishing health of Australian ecosystems is unfortunately not hard to find, with decline in soil fertility, fisheries stocks, water quality and quantity and loss of carbon sinks that help local/regional climate regulation. There is both national and global urgency about the need for a coherent strategy to preserve ecosystems and the services they provide to humans.

Great potential can be generated by fostering enthusiasm and passion from innovators and bringing them together in a flexible network that brings together the interests, skills and capacities of Federal and State Governments, the private sector, research communities, local regional bodies and civil society. An approach that encourages collaboration and builds on existing activity, while creating opportunities for a broad consistent approach to the national valuation of the essential suite of services could, Australia 21 believes, contribute substantially to the solution of many natural resource issues including biodiversity conservation, bio-sequestration of carbon and indigenous employment.

In its preliminary proposal for a NESN, the Australia21 Ecosystems team is suggesting that NESN members would have the responsibility for overseeing the data needs, the research activity, and the development of a framework for a coordinated regional approach to the assessment and management of ecosystem services across the nation. Australia 21 is currently seeking support from funding agents, to undertake discussions and a roundtable with the many stakeholders who would be needed to make the national strategy operational.

What does it cost to run Australia21?

People contemplating donating to a non-profit organisation quite reasonably want to know how much of the money they donate will be applied to the purpose for which they make their donation, and how much will be expended on overheads. Many of them will also wonder what other sources of support the organisation might have, because they want to know whether their donations will make a difference.

To deal with the second question first, we have sometimes encountered in personal conversation and in the media an assumption that Australia21 receives government funding. For example, one media commentator who was hostile to the findings of our report on illicit drugs policy described us as “a government-sponsored think tank”.  There is no foundation whatever in this claim, and in fact while we have on occasion managed to secure funding from government agencies for specific projects that were of particular interest to them, we have never sought government support for our running costs because of the potential for our independence to be compromised. In order to ensure our independence our preference is for our running costs to be derived from a widely dispersed group of contributors.

Regarding the running costs themselves, we keep them to what we regard as the irreducible minimum:

-  Because we are a registered non-profit with Gift Tax Deductibility, as a matter of law our Directors receive no remuneration for their efforts in running the company, fundraising, or representing the company at public events.

-  We maintain a small secretariat: a part time Executive Director who works a nominal two days a week and routinely contributes extra time, for which we are grateful; a part time office administrator who comes in for a few hours a week, and a part-time book-keeper.

-  Our office is a single room in the former Weston Primary School in the Australian Capital Territory, which the ACT Administration has renovated as a centre for NGO offices. Our monthly rental is currently $295.

-  We conduct our Board meetings by monthly teleconference: face to face meetings are a rarity.

-  Our accounting and audit costs are provided at concessional rates, but in order to be permitted to raise funds in some jurisdictions we are still required to have a full annual audit of our accounts, notwithstanding recent changes to the Corporations Law.

Averaging all of these costs over the year we need about $4,000 per month or $48,000 per annum to provide the infrastructure which enables us to undertake our projects and communicate the results to the public.

We also do our best to keep project costs to a minimum.  We can usually find a university willing to provide us at no charge with a venue for our conferences and roundtables, as the Australian National University and Melbourne University have done on several occasions, and as the University of Sydney did for our recent roundtable on illicit drugs.

We encourage participants in our roundtables to meet their own travel and accommodation costs where they are able to do so, but always budget to meet the costs of some participants as we do not want capacity to pay to be a limiting factor on participation.

Our directors participate in these events without fee. On occasions we pay a suitably qualified person to write a discussion paper for a roundtable, or to prepare a major research report.  Usually we can identify a person with very high level expertise who can prepare a top quality review paper quickly and who is prepared to do so for “mates’ rates”. Where that suitably qualified person happens to be a Director of Australia21 we will pay them a modest fee, but many of our Directors waive their right to the fee, or donate it to Australia21.

When all is said and done, the cost of running a roundtable including preparation of a commissioned paper, and write-up and publication of the report, typically comes to around $25,000.

The above figures will illustrate why small donations are important to Australia21.  We get a lot of bang for the buck, and depend upon private donors for our running costs.

To illustrate the point: within a few days of the release of our report on illicit drugs (see here) over 3000 visitors downloaded it from our website. If each of these visitors had donated a tax-deductible $10 to Australia21, that would have covered over 60% of our running costs for a year, or alternatively have funded a new project, such as the studies we are seeking to finance on Regreening Australia (see here) or a roundtable on the applicability to Australia of the Portuguese experience in the decriminalisation of drug use.

So be assured that small donations really do matter, and will be appreciated by Australia21. If you want to support our work, please visit www.australia21.org.au and hit the Donate button to make a tax deductible donation. And tell your friends about us.

Alex Wodak: Time for Plan B in the War on Drugs

In an article in The Conversation today 1 May 2012 Australia21 Director Dr Alex Wodak says it is time for a Plan B in the war on drugs:

At the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, on 14 to 15 April, over 30 heads of government (including US President Barack Obama) took part in a closed-door discussion about the failure of the war on drugs. President Obama was forced to concede that this discussion was legitimate. And conservative Canadian Prime Minister Steve Harper surprised many at the summit when he also conceded that the war on drugs had failed.

Nigel Inkester, a former chief of MI6 in the United Kingdom, declared on 17 April that the war on drugs had been lost and that drug legalisation had to be considered.

First academics started saying these things, then retired politicians, judges and police chiefs. Now serving presidents and prime ministers are also finally admitting that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

When Plan A doesn’t work, it’s time to think about Plan B. As Gramsci said, “the old is dead but the new is not yet born.

Read Alex’s full article here.