It's time to move beyond 'harm minimisation'

When everything old is new again, we can't progress. A group of 'NSW Parliamentarians committed to harm minimisation' convened a NSW drug summit on August 11 in Sydney. They are pitching harm minimisation as a 'new approach for drug policy'. In reality, harm minimisation has been the overarching goal of Australia's National Drug Strategy for more than 30 years now, and that Strategy is endorsed by all major parties. Looking to the past, we can see why we need to move beyond 'harm minimisation' and towards a new approach to drug policy. 

The concept of 'harm minimisation' emerged in the 1970s, in a context where prohibition was clearly failing to control the availability of drugs. An alternative to prohibition was unthinkable because the only conceivable alternative - 'legalisation' - would seem overly permissive towards drug use. 'Harm minimisation' was the compromise position.

Over the last 30 years, we've seen that harm minimisation can mean just about anything to anyone, and 'harm minimisation' activities sometimes pull in opposite directions. For example, police enforce prohibition as a way to achieve harm minimisation through 'supply reduction' but also help perpetuate a unnecessarily harmful market where consumers don't know the contents of products that they are sold.

Despite the diversity, one thing in common across all versions of 'harm minimisation': a concern about permissiveness. This is at heart a moral concern, and it's a reasonable one. Given that there are risks associated with drug use, a 'just say yes' approach wouldn't promote wellbeing.

Having set itself up as an alternative to moral prohibition, 'harm minimisation' has dealt with moral issues through avoidance. It has attempted to stake out a position that everyone can sign up to, whether they see the use of particular drugs as morally wrong or not.

But how can we talk about the way we live our lives and how we treat other people without a moral framework?

This is an urgent question because concerns about seeming permissive towards drug use has itself promoted a culture of permissiveness towards the failure and the harms of our drug laws.

After 30 years of 'harm minimisation,' we haven't seen any major law reforms. Harm minimisation has helped introduce valuable new services like needle and syringe exchange for injecting drug users, but has left a harm-promoting legal framework intact. This isn't just a historical accident. It was inevitable.

The fear that endorsing 'legalisation' would seem unacceptably permissive towards drug use means that 'harm minimisation' has been unacceptably permissive towards the use of criminal sanctions in relation to drugs.

Harm minimisation has called out the criminalisation of drug use for failing to reduce drug use, but has been too silent about the fact that, in harming people who haven't harmed others, the criminalisation of drug use is inherently wrong.

It has had too little to say about the fact that prohibition has failed to properly regulate a market, and in that failure, promoted diverse and substantial harm.

Harm minimisation is easily made complicit with the legal status quo. That is a moral and strategic problem. We need a new approach.

The great majority of people who use legal or illegal drugs have shown themselves to be capable of remaining accountable and responsible. These are important values, alongside 'permission' and we have something to learn here that's relevant to drug laws: permissiveness should be combined with accountability and responsibility. Our drug laws permit the criminal justice to harm people unjustly, and those laws are not held to account. This is a moral problem that we cannot continue to avoid.

A better future needs accountability and responsibility from our leaders at least as much as from ourselves. Perpetuating criminalisation, on the basis of concerns about permissiveness, shows an unacceptable lack of faith in people. Perpetuating ‘harm minimisation’ - the perpetual ‘new approach’ that’s never really new - is complicit with that lack of faith. It gives a free pass to failure and harm.

We need laws that recognise and enhance our own capabilities to care for ourselves and to treat other people like we want to be treated. Harm minimisation is not enough. If we want a better future in a world with drugs, we should be asking: how can we live well?


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