Ten years ago, on 19 August 1997, Federal Cabinet at the behest of Prime Minister John Howard aborted a proposed scientific trial to evaluate the effectiveness of prescription heroin as a treatment for heroin dependence. Six years of careful scientific research work was trashed.
Cabinet claimed the heroin trial was abandoned because it would have ''sent the wrong message''. After the meeting, two Cabinet members (Peter Reith, Judith Moylan) breached the Westminster tradition by telling waiting reporters that Cabinet had erred.
Though much less so than a decade ago, heroin injecting is still a significant health, social and crime problem in Australia. A small minority of severely dependent heroin injectors refractory to all existing treatments probably account for much of the heroin-related crime and many of the new heroin recruits. The main reason for conducting prescription heroin trials is to establish whether this could add to the benefits already obtained from existing treatments.
The community strongly supports bringing all forms of illicit drug use under control aiming to make life healthier and safer. After failing to accept the political challenges of prescription heroin research, the Federal government responded by launching a populist 'War Against Drugs' in late 1997. Just a few years later, methamphetamine use and resulting problems started increasing. The community now also has to contend with stimulants like ''ice'', drugs we understand poorly and for which we are ill-prepared therapeutically.
Though the government claims that its Tough on Drugs approach dramatically reduced heroin availability in Australia from 2000, a more credible explanation is the 80-90% fall in heroin production in Burma since 1996. Burma is the source of virtually all the heroin reaching this country but Australia could not have been responsible for Burma’s sharply declining opium cultivation. In June 2001, Mr Keelty, Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, said there had been ''a business decision by Asian organised crime gangs to switch from heroin production as their major source of income to the making of methamphetamine, or speed, tablets. Their market research tells them that these days people are more prepared to pop a pill than inject themselves.''
Heroin prescription treatment could greatly improve an intractable severe minority among the estimated 120,000 Australian heroin injectors, also benefiting their families and communities. Based on overseas research we could expect improved health and reduced crime with substantial community resources saved.