Drugs! Drugs! Drugs!

by · March 4, 2011

As the state election skulks closer, it seems clear the NSW Greens will not be actively campaigning on their Drugs and Harm Minimisation policy in the community or the media. Their silence makes obvious that they have determined to stay mum on the question, despite the policy being one democratically endorsed by the membership after prolonged and lively debates.

This is pretty detrimental at a time when significant public interest questions are being raised about failed “zero tolerance” approaches to drug harm. While this silence is likely out of fear of Daily Telegraph front pages, which have in the past run shock horror claims that “The Greens want heroin sold to children in playgrounds by murderers”, this doesn’t mean it’s either a politically or ethically sensible approach. While gone are the days when pragmatic members would suggest candidates in more conservative electorates hide the party’s position in support of issues like same-s*x marriage and adoption, attempts to similarly conceal what are thought of as controversial parts of the party platform appear here to say.

This pragmatic approach will always have its critics, particularly in a party that prides itself on “doing politics differently”. But with a number of high profile members of the Coalition government-in-waiting publicly critical of the Kings Cross Medically Supervised Injection Centre (MSIC) the lack of a campaign is especially worrying.

It is difficult to win community support for initiatives like the MSIC if a party cedes ground in this way (and in particular when it is done for supposed political advantage during a campaign). Without a vocal, public defence of the MSIC now, it will be much easier for O’Farrell to argue he has a mandate. It is hardly likely that the despised ALP government will take a stand on the MSIC despite supporting its continuation — the recent imbroglio involving the arrest of Education Minister Verity Firth’s husband for buying a single ecstasy pill demonstrates how little backbone Labor has on law and order issues.

A fear of tabloid headlines distracts from mounting a case based on a wealth of research and professional opinion that led to the establishment of the facility in the first place. It also does little to counter community fear, or to be able to point out that a June 2006 report by the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research noted the MSIC has enjoyed the support of the surrounding Kings Cross community. The evaluation indicated that 78 percent of residents and 70 percent of business operators supportive of its presence.

Running scared?

The silence of the Greens on this matter, and their touchiness on the question of drugs policy more generally, has always been an oddity given their policy framework on legal and illegal drugs is well regarded in the harm minimisation community and sections of the media. The policy was developed in conjunction with experienced and high profile professionals who work in the area of drug addiction and health, and the party has discussed and approved a strategy of harm minimisation on many occasions.

The most recent internal debate, which signed off on the current state policy in August 2007, followed after attempts by Bob Brown to shift Australian Greens policy to the Right, claiming that unnamed pollsters had told him that Greens’ support for decriminalisation decreased the Greens vote by 4 percent. As it turned out, he was unable to get through the most contentious aspect of his push, of supporting criminalisation of most personal drug possession and use. Since his partial win on the issue he has played both sides, claiming to be for both harm reduction and tough penalties.

Brown’s approach stood in stark contrast to then state MLC Lee Rhiannon’s decision to throw the first punch on the issue, garnering her space in the Daily Telegraph to put her case. Unlike 2003, when the Telegraph ran the issue at a hysterical pitch, Rhiannon’s manoeuvre rapidly neutralised it. That she could do this is partly a reflection of community attitudes moving against law and order mindlessness on illegal drugs. This showed up again in the Telegraph’s People’s Parliament the other day, when the first vote taken, “Should minor drug use be decriminalised and mandatory rehabilitation be undertaken of offenders?” was passed with 40 votes in favour and 24 votes against.

Yet when Firth’s husband was being forced out of his job to maintain the fiction that government policy was working, Left Flank presumes that a decision was made by Greens in her left-leaning seat of Balmain to downplay the issue — at a time when events were creating an opening for rational debate. Could it be that the party’s central campaign has also decided to tread a similarly circumspect path?

It’s time for Greens candidates, MLCs and Senator-elect Rhiannon to take a public stand and promote good policy and the public interest on the question of harm minimisation and the MSIC. It’s not just the right thing to do health wise for injecting drug users, but out of respect for the party’s democratic decision to stand against the right-wing tide and adopt a principled harm reduction policy framework. Not least of all, it gives the progressive and health communities the best chance of defeating the desire of some NSW Liberals to close the MSIC.