The Federal Health ministry showed it's on a hair-trigger this week, shooting down a call for 'proper debate' about how to deal with ice. The original comments had come from Victoria Police's Senior Sergeant Tony Francis, at a community forum in Geelong.
Why Health Minister Fiona Nash felt compelled to respond with a press release wasn't clear. Victoria Police spokesperson Cath Allen had already spoken to the media. “The ice problem poses a formidable challenge that won’t be met without new ideas," she said. "It demands a free thinking, collective effort across Governments and the community as a whole, and we thank Senior Sergeant Francis for his efforts in this space and his contributions towards the debate."
Francis had contributed the idea of 'manufacturing and distributing ice in a controlled way to addicts through clinics'. He speculated that this would make the drug safer to use, would undermine black-market production and criminal gangs, and would reduce the amount of property crime.
In response, Nash's press release began with a list of poisons that ice 'typically contains'. (Never mind that there is already a pharmaceutical version produced legally around the world.) Ice ruins the health of users, the statement continued, and built to a final crescrendo: “a Coalition Government will never legalise a drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families."
The fact that any state government could stop arresting ice users without even consulting the Commonwealth doesn't seem to be any concern of the Health Minister. Nevertheless, having said what they won't do, she offered that 'education is key'. At first glance that has nothing to do with arresting ice users and at second glance, it still doesn't. What's more, while drug education is popular, in practice it rarely makes much difference, and that difference isn't always positive
Forget about taking the broader view though. Nash has already met addicts and their mothers, on her '25,000 kilometre' trip to ice consultations around the country. For contribution to policy debate, we got more value from Bronwyn Bishop's helicopter flights. What Nash has to tell us from all this is that ice causes 'so much physical and mental pain'.
Well here's the question, if people who use ice are already experiencing 'physical and mental pain', why would we want to arrest them? Nash says that on her 25,000 klometre trip, 'police of all ranks have repeatedly told me we can’t arrest our way out of the ice problem'.
We've all agreed that arresting people is not the way out. There is no good reason to do so and there's a really good reason to stop: it makes life worse for people.
It harms people who otherwise experience no harms. It also harms people who are already experiencing substantial harms. It's an approach that's correlated with increased drug-related death, and not with decreased demand for drugs.
Francis pulled back to consider the effects and implications of how we deal with illegal drugs. Nash drew the focus back to the drug itself and asribed it immense power. This pattern will be familiar to observers of drug policy debate. Equally familiar will be Nash's claim that ceasing to arrest users would 'send' the 'wrong message'. If she really wants to send the right message she should answer this question: is she on the side of people, and life?