Hold the Line on Drugs

At the moment the state of Victoria has relatively strong laws against drug possession and use, but various groups are attempting to change this. In 1995 there were about 16,000 drug offences in Victoria. About 11,000 were for cannabis, 2,600 for heroin, 1,500 for amphetamines and 750 for other drug dependence. It is said that 29 percent of all Victorians have tried cannabis, 2 percent heroin, 3 percent cocaine, 7 percent amphetamines, 2 percent ecstasy and 6 percent hallucinogens. (There is some question as to just how accurate these figures are. They may well be overstated.) There were almost 300 drug-related deaths in Victoria in 1995, about half of them heroin deaths.

In Victoria it is a criminal offence to have or use marijuana. A conviction for possession can result in a good behaviour bond or a $500 fine, while conviction for production can result in a $2000 fine and/or a one year jail term.

In December of 1995, in response to widespread publicity about the increasing availability of heroin on the streets of Melbourne, the Victorian Premier Mr Jeff Kennett created the Premier’s Drug Advisory Council to advise the Government on what should be done about the problem of illegal drugs. In March of 1996 the Council, led by Prof. David Penington, released a report on drugs. Although canvassing a number of issues, including more drug education and expanded support and treatment, the most controversial point of the report was the call to legalise marijuana use. Specifically, it recommended that the use of 25 grams or less of marijuana no longer be an offence, and that cultivation of up to five plants per household for personal use no longer be an offence.

This recommendation ended up taking centre stage in the whole debate. The majority of Victorians were quite against this recommendation. Indeed, surveys found that Victorians consistently disapproved of any attempt to soften drug laws. Premier Kennett’s own backbench was also strongly opposed to the idea of decriminalisation.

After lengthy lobbying and much debate, the state government decided in June of 1996 to retain the criminalisation of marijuana use. The idea of decriminalisation has thus been put on hold for the time being.

But Prof. Penington has made it clear that he still intends to push through drug legalisation. In fact, he has recently said that he would like to see all drugs legalised, heroin included. So a temporary victory has been won in the drug wars, but we expect that Mr Kennett will again push his libertarian stance on drugs.

The division within the Kennett government on the question of drug legalisation finds parallels with a number of other moral/cultural issues, such as the question of legalising prostitution, legalising euthanasia, or the promotion of gambling. The majority of Kennett’s back benchers are moral conservatives who oppose such moves, but Kennett has taken a strong libertarian stand on these and other issues.

While the Kennett government has been elected to two terms by Victorians, largely because of his economic transformation of the State, undoing the damage done by successive Labor governments, the population is beginning to grow weary of Kennett’s arrogance and out-of-touch style. This, coupled with the internal divisions within the Liberal/National coalition (backbench conservatives versus Kennett-led libertarians), may make it more difficult for Kennett to secure victory at the next state election, due in 1997. Whether these considerations will help Kennett to temper his libertarian leaning remains to be seen, but he has now experienced several setbacks from the hands of his conservative back bench.

Even if the Premier no longer pushes the pro-drug line, there are many activist groups in Victoria, and Australia, which are campaigning tirelessly to overturn all drug criminalisation. It can be expected, therefore, that the battle over drug decriminalisation will again capture the public spotlight in the very near future. Groups which helped to overturn the Penington recommendations in 1996 will need to be on guard, ready to once again enter the battle. The 1996 victory was due in part to networking, and anti-drug forces will need to do more of the same to achieve a favourable outcome.

Grass roots organizing has also been, and will be, very important. Getting our people to lobby politicians, especially by visiting MPs, as well as by writing to them, is an essential component of victory. Also essential is the ability to mobilise large numbers of people to write letters to the editors of newspapers: national, state, city and local papers.

In the drug wars, the old saying holds true: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”.

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