The former British Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who died this week, was universally regarded as a no-nonsense 'conviction politician'.
Few know of her important role in the early adoption and vigorous implementation of a needle exchange programme to control the spread of HIV in the United Kingdom. At that stage, in 1986, the Netherlands was the only country in the world to have started a similar policy. The discovery of the condition, now referred to as HIV/AIDS, was first announced to the world on 5 June 1981. It was clear very early on that this condition was a serious health, social and economic threat to the world but little was known about the nature and extent of this threat.
Mrs Thatcher accepted the recommendation to establish a national needle exchange programme to slow the spread of HIV among and from people who inject drugs. The recommendation was made by a UK committee established to develop an effective response to HIV. The UK needle exchange programme undoubtedly prevented many HIV infections and much needless suffering as well as saving many lives and many pounds. Mrs Thatcher's decision influenced many other countries to adopt needle syringe programs. Australia's first needle syringe programme was established on 12 November 1986 as an act of civil disobedience and prompted the then NSW Government to establish a state wide system. All other states and territories followed within two years.
Many assume that pragmatic drug policies are generally a product of left wing political parties and governments. This is not so. The experience of Mrs Thatcher in establishing a needle exchange programme in the UK in 1986 and President Nixon establishing a national methadone treatment programme in the USA in 1969 are examples of conservative politicians adopting pragmatic drug policies. Both were excellent decisions though still often criticised.
On 2 April 1985, the then Prime Minister of Australia (Mr Bob Hawke) convened a 'Special Premier's Conference' (the 'Drug Summit') at which it was agreed by all eight governments represented (the Commonwealth, six states, the Northern Territory) that 'harm minimisation' would henceforth be Australia's official national drug policy. At the time, five of the governments were Labor while three (Queensland, Bjelke-Petersen; Tasmania, Gray; and Northern Territory, Tuxworth) were centre-right (National, Liberal and Country Liberal respectively). For many years, Australia's response to HIV and drug policy enjoyed bi-partisan support. All nine Australian governments have continued to support harm minimisation since 1985 whatever the political hue of the party or parties forming government.