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Federal

Jun 16, 2010

The Greens take their medicine on the drug debate

The Greens intend to maintain their moderate drugs policy rather than back-pedal -- as they repeatedly have in the past -- under threat of a scare campaign. It's the right play.

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Finally, a good news story: reports the Greens intend to maintain their moderate drugs policy rather than back-pedal — as they repeatedly have in the past — under threat of a scare campaign in advance of this year’s federal and Victorian elections.

Now, I’m not going to use the occasion to revisit the drugs debate itself. Anyone who by this time still thinks that prohibition is working or is ever likely to just hasn’t been paying attention. But in light of the Greens’ recent surge in the polls, it’s interesting to think about how minor parties handle controversial policy areas.

The most common criticism of the Greens has always been that they are a “single-issue party”. One of the effects of that is that when people look at their policies outside the area of the environment, they expect to find them poorly thought-out or unrealistic — so of course that’s what they find. The only way for any party to avoid that sort of scrutiny is by having policies that are vague to the point of meaninglessness, as the major parties have generally learnt to do.

For the Greens to backtrack on their drugs policies when attacked showed a misunderstanding of how smear campaigns work. Their connection with reality is more or less coincidental; if one policy changes, the tabloids will simply pick on a different one — or, as they have in the case of drugs, just ignore the change and lie.

What’s more, by any rational standard the Greens’ drugs policy is quite moderate. It does not argue for drug legalisation; it supports harm minimisation (which all political parties have at least paid lip service to in the past), safe injecting rooms (which work well in NSW, and were Labor policy when it was elected in Victoria) and evidence-base policy (which is hard to argue against, although most politicians hate the idea).

An online poll on The Age website last week was running at 80%-plus support for the policy. If this is the worst anyone can find in the Greens’ policy corpus, they can’t be too scary.

But there’s a different dynamic involved for a party that’s seeking a significant share of political influence as compared to one that sits as a permanent minority on the sidelines — the position that the Greens were in not long ago. If you’re really just a pressure group, getting the policy right is the key thing; if you become a serious player, there are other priorities. To some extent at least, you have to play by the same rules as the major parties.

A few years back I had a go at the remnant Australian Democrats over this; they were taking fright at a scare campaign on drugs as if they were still a going concern. As I said, when people aren’t voting for you anyway, you might as well take the effort to get the policy right.

The Greens are in a different position. Even so, it’s pretty clear that a big part of their attraction is their commitment to principle. Many of their potential voters would disagree with several of their policy positions, but are hungry for a party that genuinely stands for something and puts a value on integrity. Backing away from controversy risks damaging that reputation, and once lost it is almost impossible to recover.

It’s also worth remembering that becoming a serious player brings not only greater scrutiny, but a greater opportunity to explain one’s case.

One reason that smears against minor parties are so effective is that those parties have so little publicity to start with; the smear monopolises the coverage, and their own positive case never gets a hearing. This morning’s story is itself evidence that the Greens have moved beyond that stage.

If they can use the opportunity wisely, the Greens might add to their own reputation and at the same time contribute to a saner public debate on drug policy.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson has contributed to Crikey since 2002, and was a ministerial adviser in the Kennett government and a former editorial manager at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

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10 comments

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10 thoughts on “The Greens take their medicine on the drug debate

  1. Julius

    Prohibition never seems to have been made to work any better than prohibition of alcohol did in the USA except for Singapore perhaps. (Do you know about Japan as another example where one might find that it has worked?). And the criminality and corruption actually produced by the drug trade is a huge negative.

    While you and I might agree that, given the number of drones supported by a modern economy, a few extra wasted drug addicts on disability pensions wouldn’t be a great disaster for the economy or budget (assuming that the number increased rather than decreased or remained unchanged), there is a problem about allowing people to drive under the influence of cannabis and cannabis also, fairly conclusively now, is known to precipitate schizophrenia in vulnerable people. So, what do you do to minimise such adverse results of liberalisation? Offering gene tests to find the vulnerable would be a small part…..

    Also do you have an opinion about maintaining the criminal law against drug trading but ensuring that legal use can take place by buying from safe and supervised sources? Plus, what about concentrating on the users who misuse? (An idea I got years ago from reading about Japan making addicts go “cold turkey” which is only unsafe for amphetamines I believe). The criterion would be, roughly, than one mustn’t appear in a public place after rendering oneself unfit for the ordinary requirements of responsible citizenship. (Cp. the old Vagrancy laws, discredited perhaps in their old form for the contemporary age, but still – based on some idea of the community’s interest in people behaving as responsible citizens).

    It will not have escaped you that putting pressure on the users in some such way would add to the pressure on illegal traders who, one may presume, would be pushers rather than just the equivalent of a tobacconist or pharmacist.

  2. Julius

    @Charlie

    You are being a trifle literal Charlie, aren’t you; or just acting the punchy Glaswegian who’s out for a brawl? If you have read up on the history of drug taking I am sure you know of those described sometimes as the “gentlemen opium smokers” who apparently had their lives satisfactorily under control – though not perhaps if they were required to work in an office 9 to 5.

    I didn’t suggest that any legislative changes should be contingent on anything but, come to think of it, you show that it might be desirable to suggest to some people that thinking through the consequences and making sure they are anticipated could at least as important in the case of drug decriminalisation as it usually is.

    I saw a bit of the medical marijuana in California program: my partner’s horticultural enthusiasms required it as she almost swooned on seeing the beautiful greenhouse growths. But if your point is that it isn’t much use trying to anticipate problems so as to avoid them because of the adventitious way elements in the course of change in drug laws appears I would disagree in the case of real problems such as the association of pot with schizophrenia and dangerous driving. Would Greens disagree?

    In truth I was writing to young Clever Charlie in the hope of further fine tuning his fine discriminating mind. One has to help him you know: these growing aberrant fantasies about votes for five year olds (or is it only down to ten, or restored to 14 right now?) do make one wonder. Not that one can accuse him of blind self-interest: he did get the vote shortly after his PhD.

  3. Russell

    The big problem with the notion that drug use is a “health problem” is that people bring this “problem” willingly and knowingly on themselves because they WANT to. Drugs a re a highly prized and valued commodity, made more so by decades of “just say no” moralising and the failure of prohibition. Drug users have made a choice, and the consequences of that choice are NOT someone one else’s responsibility. Certainly not other tax payers. The only thing we can do is make sure consumers are properly informed. “Medicalising” what is essentially a consumer decision is a disaster, and will be a huge drain on the public purse, should the Greens ever be in a position put their nonsense policy into practise (fortunately, unlikely).

    The other fatal flaw in their position is to keep all drugs illegal. They are having it both ways here. Making life more comfortable for users is all very “sensible”, as Charles Richardson notes. But if what they are demanding can only be supplied by criminal gangs, then those crime gangs will only get more and more powerful as their market penetration is increased by relaxed user penalties.

    Yes, the Greens say they “will punish the pushers” severely. That sound like a law and order campaign. But what on earth are are they thinking? Mexico? Because that’s what we will get.

    Their policy doesn’t make any sense at all. They are having two bob each way here, tip toeing round the edges of a multi-dollar global industry, which they intend to leave in the hands of the cartels. Total legalisation is the only way to go, but apparently the Greens don’t have the courage to propose that. No, it would “alienate” mainstream voters.

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