Drug policy was not an issue in the recent defeat of the Howard Government. But will the election of a Rudd government affect that policy?

Australia adopted harm minimization as its official national drug policy in 1985 enabling the adoption of a flexible, swift and effective response to the threat of HIV spread among injecting drug users. Howard’s government adopted a “Tough on Drugs” approach in 1997 after stopping the proposed rigorous scientific trial of prescription heroin. Even so, harm minimisation remains the official national drug policy.

Despite its harsh rhetoric, Howard’s government was the first to provide federal funding to the states to enhance needle syringe programs. Australia continued to be a very strong supporter of harm reduction at the UN and other international forums. Australia also generously funded harm reduction in the Asian region to reduce the spread of HIV among injecting drug users.

The Howard government also provided substantial funding to divert drug using offenders from the criminal justice system to the drug treatment system. Howard’s strong zero tolerance rhetoric and his government’s discreet but pragmatic support for a largely harm reduction approach to drug policy were irreconcilable. Two parliamentary drug enquiries were just for the purpose of feeding red meat to his constituency.

As in many other policy areas, Kevin Rudd adopted the Prime Minister’s policy on drugs in the run up to the election. It remains to be seen whether Rudd was simply being politically strategic or if he actually intends to implement virtually identical drug policies to his predecessor. It seems unlikely at this stage that Rudd’s drug policy will differ markedly from Howard’s although the rhetoric is likely to be less strident and more compassionate.

However, the election of Dr Brendan Nelson as leader of the Opposition may see a return to a more bipartisan and even an evidence-based approach to drug policy. Like other doctors, Nelson will find it hard to ignore clear rigorous evidence in favour of electoral fluff. Nelson has disclosed that he has lost a close family member to AIDS and has been deeply affected by that. As a doctor, Nelson would realise that HIV is not the epidemic that Australia has to have.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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