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The Politics Of Heroin: Howard Takes Issue With Four Corners

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has taken issue with the ABC television program, Four Corners, over its report last night, ‘The Politics of Heroin’.

Four Corners claimed that “as politicians and police wage war on illegal drugs, another crucial battle is being played out behind the scenes. It’s a struggle over how Australia tackles the drug problem. A clash between the forces of zero tolerance and harm minimisation, between those who fight any easing of drug prohibitions and those who say drug use is a reality that must be accepted and regulated.”

The program went on to track “how the zero tolerance or ‘tough on drugs’ camp is assuming control of policy under Prime Minister Howard and his drugs adviser.”

In a statement released today, Howard argues that the government’s ‘Tough on Drugs’ strategy, launched in 1997, has been successful, citing an “unprecedented increase in the detection and seizure .. of illicit drugs other than cannabis”.

Howard also disputes the argument that his policy is one of zero tolerance, claiming that “approximately 60% of Tough on Drugs funding, or $302 million over four years, has been provided to prevention, education, rehabilitation and diversion of illicit drug users out of the criminal justice system and into compulsory assessment.”

Text of statement released by Prime Minister John Howard.


The Four Corners programme on drugs policy aired last night seriously misrepresented the Government’s approach, was unbalanced and omitted vital facts relevant to any objective assessment of the impact of the Government’s approach.

The Government’s Tough on Drugs Strategy provides a balanced package of measures aimed at reducing illicit drug use and the harm it causes through a tougher approach to drug traffickers combined with education and rehabilitation programmes.

Renewed calls for a heroin prescription trial and claims that Tough on Drugs is simply a “zero tolerance” approach ignore the facts about the Tough on Drugs strategy and the impact this approach is having in the area of heroin supply and heroin overdose deaths.

Since Tough on Drugs was launched in 1997, there have been a number of successful outcomes.

We have seen an unprecedented increase in the detection and seizure, by Commonwealth law enforcement agencies, of illicit drugs other than cannabis. Almost 6 tonnes of these drugs have been seized since the inception of Tough on Drugs, including about 1.3 tonnes of heroin and 2.6 tonnes of cocaine.

By comparison, the five years preceding Tough on Drugs saw some 2.5 tonnes of illicit drugs seized.

Reduced heroin availability, combined with increased availability of treatment services, has in turn contributed to a reduction in deaths from heroin overdose. For example, heroin overdose deaths among 15-44 year olds decreased by almost 25% in 2000, from 958 deaths in 1999 to 725 deaths in 2000.

While equivalent figures are not yet available for 2001, early indications are that an even greater reduction in heroin overdose deaths has occurred in 2001. For example in Victoria, in 2001 there were 49 deaths from heroin overdose, compared to 331 in 2000, an 85% reduction.

In addition, an evaluation of the 2001 National Illicit Drugs Campaign, which targeted parents of children aged 8-17 years, encouraging them to talk to their children about drugs, found that:

  • Three in five parents felt that the campaign as a whole made it easier to talk to their children about illegal drugs;
  • 47% of parents reported that the campaign had prompted them to take action, such as talking to their children about drugs; and
  • 49% of young people aged 15-17 years who were surveyed stated that the campaign had made it easier to talk to their parents about drugs.

While the Government has a zero tolerance approach to drug trafficking and supports a policy of ‘no illicit drugs in schools’, to describe Tough on Drugs as simply a zero tolerance approach is ill-informed.

Approximately 60% of Tough on Drugs funding, or $302 million over four years, has been provided to prevention, education, rehabilitation and diversion of illicit drug users out of the criminal justice system and into compulsory assessment.

By comparison, Tough on Drugs provided $212 million over four years for measures aimed at protecting our borders from illicit drug traffickers and enhancing cooperation with overseas law enforcement agencies.

There have also been improvements in access to treatment services. A census of drug treatment services conducted in May 2001 found that the proportion of people in treatment for drug and alcohol problems in Australia has increased since the last census in 1995.

The second phase of the Tough on Drugs Campaign is currently under development and will target young people.

The Government committed a further $109 million to Tough on Drugs during the election.

Under Tough on Drugs we will continue our efforts to:

  • stop drugs reaching out streets;
  • prevent illicit drug use by working in partnership to build healthy families and communities;
  • provide treatment opportunities for those wanting to kick their habit;
  • help illicit drug users to avoid a criminal record by diverting them to education and treatment; and
  • assist those who continue to use illicit drugs by improving access to clean injecting equipment, referral and support.

The Federal Government remains opposed to prescription heroin trials and injecting rooms. The Government’s focus will remain on ensuring a wide range of treatment and rehabilitation options aimed at helping illicit drug users to kick the habit rather than options that involve maintaining heroin use.

Prescription heroin trials would send exactly the wrong message to the community and undermine education and treatment efforts.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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