B’nai B’rith and Hatzolah participate in drugs forum
More than 150 members of the Melbourne community have attended a “Drugs Without Borders: Rethinking Responses”, forum organized by B’nai B’rith Victoria.
The forum was co-hosted with The Brotherhood of St Laurence, Hatzolah Melbourne and Odyssey House Victoria.
Farah Farouque, a Senior Adviser to The Brotherhood of St Laurence, and former Journalist of “The Age”, as Moderator, Emeritus Professor David Penington AC as the Keynote Speaker, and a panel comprising Danny Elbaum, Operations Manager of Hatzolah, Dr Stefan Grunert, CEO of Odyssey House and Tony Nicholson, ED of The Brotherhood, surprised many if the audience with what they had to say.
Professor Penington , known as a fearless advocate of informed discussion, began by reminding us that the consequences of illicit drugs is a complex and social problem affecting many diverse communities within our society. He deplored the fact that politicians respond to popularly held views without thinking through the difficulties, and that market forces always defeat the forces of prohibition. In demonstrating this Professor Penington cited the work of Richard Nixon, George Schultz, Milton Friedman and William Buckley, all of whom waged their own wars against drugs….and failed.
Even the Hague Convention of 1912, the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1914, and Alcohol Prohibition in 1919, the Geneva Convention of 1925, and various other Conventions and Senate enquiries over the years failed to change the patterns of availability and use of drugs and alcohol over the last 50 years. Professor Penington challenged us to think of alternatives, as should our politicians, but what we need to lead the changes necessary are respected and educated leaders of our communities.
Very interestingly, Australian Senate inquiries from 1971 to the present have all promoted the decriminalization of drugs.
Statements such as :
- 1971 and 1977 -“personal use of marijuana should not be defined in law as a crime…..the penalty should be solely pecuniary….with no record of conviction”.
- 1988 – “All the evidence shows…not only that our law enforcement agencies have not prevented the supply of illicit drugs to Australian markets, but that it is unreasonable to expect them to do so. If the present policy of prohibition is not working, then it is time to give serious consideration to the alternatives, however radical they may seem”
- After the 1979 Sackville Report, South Australia, in 1984, introduced a system of referral of any drug user to an assessment panel, with the option of treatment, education and rehabilitation as an alternative to prosecution. The Act also provided for payment of a fine for expiation of a charge of possession or use of cannabis, without altering the illegal status of the drug.
- Royal Commission into NSW Police Service 1997 – emphasized the inevitability of police corruption when prohibition applies to drugs.
Yet nothing has changed because these opinions do not comply with public opinion, and the latter will only change with pubic debate and leadership from respected people. Most people in the community regard drugs as bad or even evil because of their association with crime and damage to users and their families. Yet, as Professor Penington says, the association with crime and corruption is only because they are illicit.
Professor Penington then went on to relate that analysis of evidence from Portugal since decriminalization more than ten years ago. Deaths due to the use of illicit drugs have dropped from one of the highest per million populations to almost the lowest and the annual prevalence of the use of drugs as a percentage of the 17-64 age group is also very low. In comparison, the use of Ecstasy in Australia is the highest in the world and of Cannabis it is amongst the highest.
The panel taking the floor and more thought-provoking opinions followed Professor Penington
Dr Stefan Gruenert of Odyssey House spoke of his experiences, and reminded us that those addicts trying to beat their addiction, and their families, are facing social stigma, not assistance and empathy. And those that seek treatment are not likely to be successful initially, but over time achieve an encouraging result. This is in stark contrast with those that are imprisoned and the problem is exacerbated. Sadly, 75% of our government’s efforts are spent on police, prisons and crime whilst what we really need is to invest in the people affected by drugs, and their families.
Tony Nicholson of The Brotherhood of St Laurence shared his concerns of the disadvantaged youth and their very high rate of unemployment and homelessness, both of which fail to inspire the youth of any hope of economic independence. This leads them to be more vulnerable to illicit drugs, poor opportunities for education, and eventually they are caught up in the justice system. Nicholson believes decriminalization of drugs would allow them to avoid the criminal scene and allow them to achieve worthwhile lives.
Danny Elbaum from Hatzolah talked of what he sees as a first responder, and his concerns that he does not see the full story. Hatzolah treats the immediate medical issues but has no follow-up on counseling, treatment or long-term education. Elbaum believes that the Jewish community is no different from any other, though it may be far behind others in tackling these problems, meanwhile hiding their difficulties better.
Question time followed, with the common theme being that the families of addicts need much more support, better access to mental health experts, education for the youth, and not just to achieve high ENTER scores, but on a holistic scale.
It was suggested by one very inspirational parent that the audience join him in forming a powerful lobby group to campaign the government to recognize that the issue is not one of illicit drugs and alcohol but a genuine health issue that can be solved only with a public health approach and not a criminal one. It was advocated that involving young people to be leaders in this movement, to work with the media, to encourage public debate and to educate the public so they see more than the criminal aspect of drug use are all crucial to the success of such an appeal.
The forum ended after an absorbing three hours and the ovation for the panel and the organizers was very well deserved.