Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mick Palmer to Editor, Daily Telegraph

Following is the text of a letter sent to the editor of the Daily Telegraph on 11 February 2014, in response to an article by Miranda Devine, published in the Telegraph on 8 February. An edited text of the letter was published by as a news item by the Telegraph on 14 February (see Fighting drugs a complex issue).


Letter to the Editor,
Daily Telegraph.
11 February 2014

As a 33 year career police officer. I am neither a promoter of illicit drug use nor an apologist for illicit drug users.

The fervent nature of Miranda Devine’s article (It’s high time to end drug culture, Daily Telegraph, 8 February 2014), however, prompted me into comment.

The issue of illicit drugs is difficult and complex but it really is high time we started discussing the question of illicit drugs unemotionally and realistically and that informed people began really trying to make a difference.

Ms Devine is right to say that Hollywood glamorises illicit drugs and shouldn’t, but, equally, wider society demonises and criminalises illicit drug users when the very vast majority of such users are simply victims.

 Hollywood glamorised tobacco smoking for decades. And still glamorises alcohol. Every death matters. But we have to remember that the number of deaths from legal drugs in Australia is 15-20 times the number of deaths from illegal drugs. Even among young Australians there are more deaths from alcohol than there are from illegal drugs. And most of the people who die from a tobacco-related illness in their sixties started smoking in their late teens or early twenties.

Without, in any way wishing to minimise the illicit drug use problem, my experience tells me that  Ms Devine is on  shaky ground when claiming that the rises and falls in drug use in Australia are due to cycles of tough and laissez faire governments.

Firstly, government drug policy behind the scenes is much more complicated than the slogans and political posturing might suggest. The Howard government launched its ‘Tough on Drugs Strategy’ in 1997. Yet behind the scenes the Howard government was the first Commonwealth government to help fund the needle and syringe programmes run by the states and territories. The Howard government also allocated a lot of funding to help move drug offenders from the criminal justice system to drug treatment. And Minister Downer in the Howard government made sure that Australia gave generously to Asian harm reduction programmes to slow the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs. In my opinion, these were all excellent policies but they were all harm reduction rather than simply ‘Tough on Drugs’.

Secondly, it is important that we focus on the harms from drugs rather than on estimates of drug use. For most parents and most members of the community, deaths, disease and crime are even more important than the number of people estimated to be using drugs. Although there is a close connection between the consumption of legal drugs by individuals or communities and the risk of harm, the connection between the consumption of illegal drugs by individuals or communities and the risk of harm is not as clear.

Let’s just think about our use of cars in Australia and deaths from road crashes. Compared to 30 or 40 years ago, these days more Australians own cars, we travel longer distances each year in our cars and there are many more of us. Yet road crash deaths are a small fraction of deaths in the 1970s thanks to things like seat belts, safer vehicles and random breath tests. Harm reduction initiatives which have made a real difference.

I have spent decades of my life in law enforcement and was  the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police for a period of 7 years, including during then PM Howard’s   Tough on Drugs period. As part of my responsibilities I was accountable for working closely with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in oversighting and implementing many aspects of the policy.

As I have said publicly before, Australian police are now better trained, generally better equipped and resourced and more operationally effective that at any time in our history. But, on any objective assessment policing of the illicit drug market has had only marginal impact on the profitability of the drug trade or the availability of illicit drugs.

I am not alone in this view. Many serving and retired senior police have the same opinion. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, former US Secretary of State George Shultz, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volker, the former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland, and Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, accept that the War on Drugs has been an expensive and complete failure. My personal experience convinces me that these assessments are correct and that we must seek another path.

In this regard I was saddened by Ms Devine’s attack upon Dr Alex Wodak for his advocacy of drug law reform.  Dr Wodak is well able to defend and speak for himself but, in my view, attacking the man rather than the ball is not only poor form but generally is a sign of fundamental weaknesses in the arguments of the alleger. 

Where does this leave us?  I agree with the commentators who argue that the health, social and economic costs of alcohol consumption in Australia are too high. Like most Australians I have been angered and sickened by the continuing spate of alcohol related violence and cowardly and unprovoked conduct that has underpinned much of it.  I am ashamed and angry that so many Aboriginal Australians still die far too young from the effects of alcohol and tobacco and from glue and petrol sniffing.  These are critically serious problems and there is much that is wrong and much more that needs to be done.

But I also believe we must to do better with illicit drugs in Australia.  This will require a calm, sensible and respectful discussion based on real evidence and a focus on reducing the harms from illicit drugs. Reducing the consumption of drugs is one way of reducing the harm from drugs but the HIV epidemic showed us that being smart about drugs is much more effective than simply being tough.    

Mick Palmer
Former Commissioner of Australian Federal Police.


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