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Australian PM taking hits in drug debate

Proponents of heroin trials say they would reduce demand on the street for the drug  

By CNN's Craig Francis

(CNN) -- Facing a possible election defeat at the end of the year, Australia's Prime Minister John Howard is becoming increasingly isolated in a drugs debate raging across Australia.

Howard, who has taken a conservative position on drugs during his term in office, is being pressured by medical and legal bodies to introduce trials providing heroin to addicts in safe injecting rooms.

At the same time, the state of Western Australia is considering whether to decriminalize marijuana.

Howard's staunch opposition to heroin trials has come under fire from the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the National Crime Authority (NCA), the Labor opposition party and a raft of non-government substance abuse agencies.

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On the eve of a drug summit in the state of Western Australia, the AMA has repeated its call for support for a heroin trial despite the prime minister ruling the option out.

A trial would involve prescribed heroin being produced by pharmaceutical companies and administered to registered addicts in a monitored environment.

Advocates of the trials say they would help to ease addicts off the drug, reduce demand on the streets and limit harm to users through use of clean injecting facilities.

Howard's insistence that proponents of law reform are "sending a surrender signal to drugs" also extends to so-called soft drugs, such as marijuana.

But pressure is mounting on the prime minister to look at relaxing the laws against possession of small quantities of marijuana.

'Summit stacked'

In Perth, capital of Western Australia, observers say the regional Labor party government has tailored the upcoming Community Drug Summit 2001 to pave the way for marijuana decriminalization.

"Eighty of the 100 participants in the summit are supposedly drawn from the wider community but there is a widely held view that the composition has been stacked to ensure the government's aims are seen to be approved by the community," says Tamara Speed, head of the WA Substance Users Association.

Speed says Monday's summit in Perth would precede the introduction of decriminalization laws such as those that exist in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

Marijuana decriminalization trials in country and metropolitan centers have been carried out in WA and attracted the support of police.

While curbs on marijuana possession seem imminent, Speed says the changes may be at the expense of any radical reform towards hard drugs and intravenous drug users.

"The problem is the government is not prepared to stand up and make the tough decision, such as heroin trials, that will lead to a reduction in users associating with criminals and getting people who no longer have to steal or beg to support their habit back into the workforce," Speed said.

Federal Labor Party leader Kim Beazley, who leads Howard in polling ahead of the Federal election scheduled for later this year, says he is sympathetic to any proposals from state governments for trial distributions of heroin to addicts.

"I'm prepared to consider what the states put forward in a favorable way," Beazley said.

Law at loggerheads

AMA president Kerryn Phelps says the more creative tactics must be devised to combat the problem of heroin addiction.

"People with a serious addiction were looking for solutions such as methadone management and rehabilitation programs," Dr Phelps told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio recently.

"There's a tremendous demand for help. One of the ways people can be helped, if they cannot get off the heroin and they're still looking for illegal sources, is to have a trial," she said.

The Howard government rejects heroin trials proposals with the argument that a mix of education and police action should beat the drug trade.

Highlighting the divisiveness of the drugs debate in Australia, the NCA and Australian Federal Police (AFP) have made statements this week that show the extent of polarization within national law enforcement agencies.

While NCA chairman Gary Crooke has supported the idea of trials, AFP chief Mick Keelty said he was concerned a trial could result in more varieties of heroin being released onto the streets.

The NCA said illicit drug use cost the community at least A$1.7 billion (US$900 million) a year with heroin use in Australia higher than in other Western countries.

A 1998 government survey of drug use found 0.7 percent of the population aged over 15 used heroin, up from 0.4 percent in 1995.

The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention ranked that higher than in Western Europe and the United States.

Although untried in the Asia Pacific region where penalties for drug possession are often very harsh, including the death penalty in some countries, heroin trials have been implemented throughout Europe, including Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Sweden.

• WA Community Drug Summit 2001
• National Crime Authority
• Australian Medical Association
• Australian Federal Police
• Ministry of Health

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