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The Greens take their medicine on the drug debate

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.

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  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 16 June 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I don’t remember a big backdown in the past - though trying to keep it off the radar has probably been a plan before. The policy strikes me as such good common sense that I hope they continue to stand by it and let the other parties have their cheap shots.

  • 2
    Julius
    Posted Wednesday, 16 June 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • 3
    Jim Reiher
    Posted Wednesday, 16 June 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    The Greens drugs policy is really quite sensible, if one takes the time to read it. And as this article says, it is not a very radical plan.

    The Greens emphasis on health and well being, means that they don’t want to see people wasted by drug abuse. The policy is simple really: keep pushers in jail and treat it as a criminal offense, but help users to get over their addictions. Give users rehab, counselling, and education, and even access to medically supervised drug use while they are helping them climb down from their addictions. Cold turkey might work for some but it does not work for all. Different people need different methods of assistance to help them get clean. Users need help, not jail. Using drugs should not be a criminal offense.

    What if a dependent user also sells drugs to help them get their own supply? Well: the judge should have the power to make the call as to which is the more dominant aspect of that person caught in both worlds. And rule accordingly.

    Not rocket science. And makes good sense really.

  • 4
    RV
    Posted Wednesday, 16 June 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    Not all users need help. Some just enjoy it. Not all drinkers need help, do they?

    The Greens policy is the most sensible in the political arena, but it does not go far enough. There are very few “pushers” out there. Those who sell drugs should not be punished for supplying a need.

  • 5
    Julius
    Posted Thursday, 17 June 2010 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    @ Jim Reiher and @ RV

    But…. (no dispute over some people just enjoying it. Think Sherlock Holmes and his morphine or cocaine or whatever it was. There really were people like that 100 years ago) what do you propose for protecting the unsuspecting young who are susceptible to having schizophrenia set off by marijuana (I know a solid citizen who said he had two teenage sons who had fallen into that unfortunate group)?

    And what do you propose to do about driving under the influence of marijuana? Is it as simple as adding testing for pot to testing for booze?

  • 6
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Thursday, 17 June 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Is that a fact, Julius? There really were people like Sherlock Holmes a hundred years ago. And I thought he was a character of fiction. What about considering actual people living in the 21st century.
    So if drug use is going to be de-criminalized, surely that question should not be contingent on resolving (beforehand) the matter of ‘driving under the influence’ or ‘protecting the unsuspecting young’ or whether ‘trading’ should be allowed. If you saw the Foreign Correspondent story about marijuana in California you would see that change tends to come about because of completely unexpected changes in society - in that case the evolution of medical marijuana. The Americans (and Europeans) are rolling with the punches in a fairly logical progression and I imagine that Australia will go through a similar process. The Greens should benefit from taking a sensible and sane position.

  • 7
    Julius
    Posted Thursday, 17 June 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    @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.

  • 8
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Thursday, 17 June 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Well, I did say that the point of the story wasn’t to discuss the merits of the drug policy. But for what it’s worth - and since that’s what everybody seems to want to talk about - I think we have a reasonably good model in the way we treat alcohol: sales are restricted to prescribed outlets, there are special taxes to cover negative externalities (they’re unnecessarily complex because governments are afraid of the wine industry, but I don’t disagree with the basic idea), advertising is subject to controls, drink-driving is heavily penalised, sales are banned to people under age and medical help is available for people who go off the rails. But the rules aren’t draconian; people who want to drink have no trouble doing so. Since most recreational drugs are no more harmful than alcohol, I’d treat them in much the same way. Plenty of scope for fine-tuning at the margin, but that’s the general idea.

    As has been pointed out, the Greens’ policy is considerably more moderate; my recollection is that it used to be more sweeping before the tabloids started getting into it 6 or 7 years ago, but I stand to be corrected on that.

  • 9
    Posted Thursday, 17 June 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Charles

    2 points to add

    1. Goef Gallop has married the MSIR operator. That has all kinds of implications for ALP drug policy in NSW.

    2. I suggest the PR problem for the Greens being exploited by the big parties is the perception that the Greens promote ‘green’ as in marijuana etc. Soooo the message as I understand it of the Greens that drug use is essentially a health problem, and at a social level pre cursor to addiction, probably a mental health problem in terms of binging etc.

    Meanwhile such as Dr Fulder on our media in Sydney and oft in the Daily Telegraph notes that alcohol - aka the great deceiver because it always takes you down below where you started despite the high in the middle - is the worst damage to society. And all legal. You can always find a booze shop open even even when you can’t find a laundret.

  • 10
    Russell
    Posted Monday, 21 June 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • 11
    Julius
    Posted Monday, 21 June 2010 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    @ Russell

    Good points it seems to me. You didn’t say but would probably accept the logic of the reality that there are already a pretty small proportion of people whose average waking hour is of any net use to fellow citizens. A few more drones, if that were to be the result of heroin, cocaine, speed (perhaps) and cannabis being put on the same basis as tobacco and alcohol, highly taxed, smuggling punished etc. would take a long time to become unaffordable even if, as seems unlikely, that was the result of legalisation.

    It does occur to me that legal vendors ought be restricted in their right to sell to addicts unless the addict has a doctor’s prescription. There should be the additional discincentive for the vendor that he mustn’t charge the addict more but must pay a percentage of his sale price to the body administering the addicts register. In fact the addict should be able to get the drugs a little cheaper from such vendors with less profit to the vendor to ensure the vendor has reason to try and stop people becoming addicts. I can see problems about what this par. suggests but it would be better if vendors had some incentive to try and stop people becoming addicts. The parallel to the model of pharmacists’ business style suggests that pharmacists might be the main vendors, if not the only ones.

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