Senate debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2007


Australian Crime Commission Committee; Report

4:59 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission entitled Inquiry into the manufacture, importation and use of amphetamines and other synthetic drugs (AOSD) in Australia, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee, and I move that the report be printed.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

At the outset of tabling this report I want to congratulate the Howard government and indeed the parliament—as I understand drugs policy is relatively bipartisan—on the work the Australian government has done to stop the importation and use of illicit drugs, particularly amphetamines and other synthetic drugs. The Tough on Drugs policy is a strategy which has been vigorously pursued and it demonstrates not only the government’s but the community’s aversion to illicit drugs.

I want to particularly place on record the great work that the Australian Customs Service, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission do in protecting Australians from the scourge of illicit drugs. I ask the Minister for Justice and Customs to pass on to those agencies my congratulations, and I am confident in doing this that I speak on behalf of all members of the committee.

Recognition should also be made of the work the state and territory police forces do, many times in difficult circumstances because of the stupidity of state boundaries and different laws in different states—but more about that later. Across the board we were considerably assisted by the evidence, experience and plans of the state law enforcement agencies. I thank them for their contribution not only to the report but also in the part they play in helping to protect Australians from organised crime and illicit drugs. So many other Commonwealth and state government agencies do mighty work in trying to address the problems arising from drug consumption in Australia; I also thank them for what they do and for the assistance they gave to the committee.

But, whilst governments do everything in their power to reduce supply and demand, it is a very sad but unfortunately true fact that we are losing the fight against the consumption of illicit drugs. Australia has the highest consumption of ecstasy per head of population in the world—3.4 per cent of the population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Just last weekend—and indeed every weekend, according to evidence given to us by the Victorian police service—some 100,000 pills of synthetic drugs are consumed by Australians. AOSD users cut cross all sectors of society and come from a variety of backgrounds. Users may range from well-educated professionals who, for example, use ecstasy and methamphetamine at dance parties, through to marginalised injecting drug users who use methamphetamine and/or cocaine.

In many cases illicit drug consumption leads to downstream impacts that destroy lives and personal relationships and become a huge burden on the health systems of the nation. Mental disease and disorders, long-term and sustained illnesses and even death are results of the taking of amphetamines and other synthetic drugs. The rise in methamphetamine use, particularly regular use in its purer forms, base and ice, has been linked to an increase in mental illness in users. Common problems include increased aggression, agitation, depression and symptoms of psychosis. The Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform submission quoted work by McKetin and others which estimates:

… the prevalence of psychosis among regular methamphetamine users was 11 times higher than that seen in the general population.

Whilst the majority of AOSD in Australia are imported, recent seizures of precursor chemicals and detections of clandestine laboratories show that domestic manufacture of amphetamines and other synthetic drugs is increasing in Australia. Detections of clandestine laboratories by law enforcement agencies have increased significantly, rising from 58 in 1996-97 to 381 in 2004-05.

The committee heard evidence of significant organised crime involvement in the importation, domestic manufacture and distribution of AOSD, particularly methamphetamine and MDMA, in Australia. Production of AOSD appears to be presently concentrated in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. The manufacture and distribution of AOSD by organised criminal groups and opportunistic producers involves business ventures motivated by significant financial gains.

The committee acknowledges that tension exists around the harm reduction and demand reduction potential of pill-testing programs. There are concerns that such schemes equate to condoning drug taking, could expose pill-testing authorities or practitioners to civil or criminal liability and could endanger users of such services. Whilst the committee acknowledges that pill-testing proponents are well intentioned, a majority of the committee considered that such programs have yet to overcome these legitimate and serious concerns.

I should mention, however, on a personal note, that I was impressed by the sincerity of Dr Caldicott and his team and the work he does. Again, on a personal basis, I am a bit torn between what I have seen with respect to the use of those pill-testing programs and the difficulties which I mentioned earlier, which still have to be overcome. Because of those differing views about the benefits of harm minimisation, the report contains no deliberative recommendations in relation to harm minimisation, apart from recommendation 7, which states:

The Committee recommends that the Victorian feasibility study for an illicit tablet monitoring and information service be monitored and, as appropriate, the outcomes independently evaluated by the appropriate Commonwealth government agency.

The committee also recommended:

… in the execution of the National Drug Strategy, harm-reduction  strategies and programs receive more attention and resources.

The committee believes it is critical that adequate funds be made available to research the long-term effects of these drugs and to provide adequate treatment and assistance for mental and physical health problems that arise from AOSD use. The committee also considers that such funding should be available for support for the families of users.

An enormous amount of work was done by government agencies, and I know that the Minister for Justice and Customs will continue to do all that is humanly possible to prevent illicit drug consumption by Australians. Strategies to address precursor drugs not only in Australia but overseas are innovative and useful. Any number of private agencies, including the Pharmacy Guild and the Real Estate Institute of Western Australia, have programs in place that do substantially contribute to the detection and reduction of the supply of amphetamines and other synthetic drugs. Indeed, the committee’s recommendation 12 asks the Commonwealth government, in collaboration with state and territory governments and pharmacists, to continue to implement Project STOP nationally.

The effectiveness of drug education programs is dependent on how information is presented. Some submitters were critical of the role the media played, accusing the media of scaremongering. There were also concerns raised about the media’s use of the term ‘party drug’ and the name ‘ecstasy’ for MDMA. The use of such terms reinforces particular positive social expectations or impressions and thereby undermines, to a degree, the efforts of health, education and law enforcement sectors.

There were a number of recommendations in relation to public education and demand-reduction campaigns. After the hearing, it is my belief that young people at the coalface are not closely enough involved in strategies to address the impacts and consequences of illegal drug taking. I place on record my appreciation to those young people who did, directly and indirectly and often anonymously, provide information to the committee. I particularly want to thank the then Triple J drivetime producer and announcer Steve Cannane for the help he gave in arranging a three-quarter hour Triple J talkback session on drugs, which I and the committee found very useful in trying to understand views of consumers and young people.

One of the recommendations related to the need for the ACC to be well funded to discharge its responsibilities. There were a number of other recommendations which related to the difficulty in Australia faced by law enforcement and other agencies dealing with nine different legislative and government jurisdictions. This is just crazy in a country like Australia. There are a number of recommendations calling for greater coordination of state and federal laws and approaches to drug offences.

I thank the Australian Crime Commission and its executive director, Mr Milroy, for the assistance they gave to the committee during its inquiry. Particularly, I want to place on record the indebtedness of the committee and indeed all Australians to the work done by the committee secretariat, in particular our research advisers Anne O’Connell and Ivan Powell, the committee secretary, Dr Jacquie Dewar, and the administrative officer Jill Manning.

The compilation of this report and the investigations that went into it involved committee members and the secretariat in a lot of travel and a lot of work. I acknowledge that members of the committee have made an outstanding effort in attending hearings and in contributing to the final report. Many of them have other electoral and parliamentary commitments which they were able to juggle to contribute to the outcome of this investigation. I want to place on record my thanks to colleagues on the committee, in particular the deputy chairman, the Hon. Duncan Kerr SC MP, and the members, namely Senators Ferris, Polly, Ludwig and Bartlett (Extension of time granted) and Ms Gash, and two former policemen and members of parliament, Kim Richardson and Jason Wood, whose contribution was particularly useful because they knew what they were talking about in many instances. Also I should mention Chris Hayes, a member of our committee who was involved with the Police Federation of Australia and New Zealand prior to his entry into parliament. His contribution was also very learned and well received.

I commend the report to the Senate and I urge the government to seriously consider each and every one of the recommendations and, as appropriate, to implement those recommendations for the benefit of Australians in the future.

5:11 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission entitled Inquiry into the manufacture, importation and use of amphetamines and other synthetic drugs (AOSD) in Australia. This report is very timely. I have only recently joined the committee and so was not able to participate in the hearings, but as the report was in draft form, I looked back through the transcripts and submissions. It is obviously an important topic. How best we deal with the social and personal harm, and indeed the economic harm, caused by illicit drug use in Australia is a vexed question which many of us wrestle with. This report makes a valuable contribution. I emphasise it is a unanimous report by 10 members from both the Senate and the House of Representatives from across a range of political parties and personal views relating to illicit drugs. That is why the report as a whole may not reflect each individual person’s view in a precise form but the fact that such a diverse range of people could come up with a unanimous report that makes some important recommendations gives it extra weight.

The recommendation around pill testing to which Senator Ian Macdonald drew attention, recommendation 7, is important. As the chair of the committee, Senator Ian Macdonald, indicated, a number of members of the committee are not yet convinced that such programs would work, given some of the hurdles in the way, but the recommendation that was adopted is that we should monitor any work in this area and assess the evidence. Frankly, I think that is the best approach. I have a view that pill testing offers some good potential but the evidence provided to the report throws up some potential risks as well. We cannot just naturally assume that this is a perfect approach, that this will work; that everybody who is against it is just a fuddy-duddy or a moralist. We have to accept that it does have potential problems built into it. The only way to find out is to monitor how it works, if it is implemented. Certainly there are feasibility studies around this in Victoria. It is very important that the committee adopt a unanimous recommendation that the progress of that study be monitored and the outcomes independently evaluated. We should all take on face value whatever evidence comes out of an activity like that and other ones.

While I do not condone illicit drug use, it is necessary for all of us to accept that the use of such substances is widespread in our society. There are many reasons why people engage in that behaviour. A lot of them are quite understandable and based on the fact that we are human beings and human beings seek out experiences like that. I endorse harm minimisation as a key guiding principle for drug policy. I very much welcome the recommendation in this report that harm reduction strategies and programs receive more attention and resources as part of the National Drug Strategy. Sometimes the slogan of harm minimisation is put up in opposition to law enforcement. I do not think they necessarily have to be seen as parallel opposites. It is a matter of different areas of emphasis, I believe.

One of the valuable aspects of the process of this inquiry, as Senator Ian Macdonald mentioned, was that it did have some input from people in the community who are in the scene, who are drug users, past drug users or know people who are drug users, who were able to give straight information to the committee. I note a very valuable recommendation made in the report—that future public education and demand reduction campaigns seek further input from young people and take account of user experiences. There is no point in a bunch of people like us, who, by and large, do not have a lot of contact with that part of our society, coming up with lots of ideas about what is going to work for people who are users or past users, or are involved or know people involved in that area. We need to hear from people themselves, and they need to be able to be confident in providing that information without thinking that they will get a moral lecture or, indeed, put themselves at some sort of legal risk. Unless we listen to the people who are actually using these substances, we are not going to have a terribly good idea of how to make them more aware of some of the risks and also make ourselves more aware of what types of campaigns may work.

The fact that Senator Ian Macdonald participated in a session on Triple J was particularly valuable. Frankly, I believe we need to be looking at doing more of that sort of thing. Accurate and credible information is an essential aspect of harm minimisation. Overblown scare campaigns, big moralising lectures and major headlines creating moral panic are not going to work. I suspect that, in many cases, they will create a bigger problem. We need to have accurate and credible information and treat this as a health issue, not just a law enforcement issue or some sort of moral issue. People across society make all sorts of personal judgements about what legal drugs they use and do not use. I think we could do with a lot more accurate information about the potential risks of those as well.

Accurate information is essential not only to the appropriate targeting of efforts, but also it raises public confidence. I believe that policies and practices based on emphasising harm minimisation will reduce drug related harm both to individuals and to the wider community. Whilst recognising that in most respects ultimate harm minimisation is the avoidance of illicit drugs, an understanding of the risks associated with drug use allows people to make informed choices while taking into account the genuine risks associated with drug use, which do vary from circumstance to circumstance, from person to person and from substance to substance.

A lack of information or distorted information hinders people’s ability to take responsibility for their choices or to engage in safer practices. That also includes providing accurate information about the harmfulness of substances. Just as I think it is counterproductive to run huge scare campaigns to the effect that going anywhere within 100 miles of a certain substance will lead to certain death, I also think it is counterproductive and potentially dangerous to say that certain substances are completely safe. Anything that creates a false impression that using certain substances is safe is potentially just as dangerous and just as risky as going to the alternative extreme. In order for messages to be credible with drug users and potential drug users, with younger people, and, frankly, with older people who use a range of synthetic drugs, it is essential that risks are acknowledged accurately. Plenty of people engage in risk-taking behaviour that falls within the legal part of the drug use spectrum or, indeed, other activities as well. That includes taking into account the variation in risk associated with different substances.

Misinformation is always the enemy. Not all information is good information. Whether it is exaggeration or understatement of the potentials of drug use, it undermines attempts to educate the community about drug related risks. I believe that the quite sizeable usage of amphetamines and other synthetic drug use in Australia—and Senator Macdonald outlined just how large the usage is—is not going to be curbed just by having some sort of zero tolerance approach or a prohibitionist approach. Successfully altering behaviours and reducing the negative impact on drug users and society as a whole can best be achieved through a genuine harm minimisation approach that ensures the availability of accurate and unbiased information, coupled with strategies that increase the prospect that illicit drug use that does occur is as safe as possible.

Just a week or so ago, we saw reports of the tragic death of a young person who took some sort of drug. I am not even sure if the actual composition of that substance has been determined yet. I am sure some people will use that situation to again call for pill testing so that people who are going to take drugs actually know what it is they are putting into their system. Whilst there is some attractiveness to that proposition—and I still am attracted to it—I would point out that evidence given to the inquiry outlined some potential hurdles. It is not perhaps as straightforward a proposition as it might seem. But I do believe that we need to explore all options further. I think we owe it to our society and to people in the community. We need to do so on the basis of the evidence and look at it as open-mindedly as possible. I think this report does that. As I said, it is a unanimous one, and I join with Senator Macdonald in urging the government to take those recommendations seriously and to respond promptly. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.