Even as “war on terror” continues with no end in sight, its older
sibling, “war on drugs,” has never quite faded from view. This week it
is back in the news, with the continuing travails of Schapelle Corby
and the much less comic predicament of the Bali Nine.
All the more reason, then, to carefully study “The heroin guilt trip” in yesterday’s Age, by medical researcher Michael Keane.
Keane calmly and methodically demolishes the myths associated with
heroin. It is not highly addictive, does not make people violent, has
relatively minor health risks, and the chance of a fatal overdose,
under the conditions that would prevail if it were legal, is
“minuscule.” “Not only are opioids relatively safe, but chronic users
can lead satisfying, functional lives.”
The debate on heroin sometimes reminds me, incongruously enough, of the
debate on compulsory voting. Supporters of compulsion seem to
simultaneously believe that voting is a vital social duty, and that
vast numbers of people (although, of course, not themselves) would
neglect it if they were not coerced. Similarly, drug prohibitionists
seem to think that only the force of law is preventing a huge
proportion of the population (again, not including themselves) from
becoming drug addicts.
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But Keane’s figures are a revelation. In rural Afghanistan, for
example, where opioids are widely available and 11% of families are
engaged in opium cultivation, heroin addiction affects only 0.03% of
In addition to the direct harm that it causes in crime and ruined
lives, prohibition has also deprived the medical profession of useful
tools. According to Keane, many specialists suggest “that the number of
side effects, hospital admissions and deaths might all be lower for
opioids than for common anti-inflammatory analgesics available at
In reality, of course, the prohibitionists will not be swayed by such
arguments. For them, the evils of heroin and other drugs are a matter
of faith, not logic. But faith-based public policy has got us into the
mess we’re currently in.