Follow the Swedish Model

In June over 200 people gathered in Sydney’s Parliament House for Drug Summit 2000. Organised by Major Brian Watters of the Salvation Army, Jill Pearman of Drug Watch, and Rev Fred Nile MLC, the three-day summit brought together experts in the area of drug policy to discuss a way ahead on the problems of drug abuse.

Unlike a similar summit held a year ago, which mainly presented the so-called harm minimisation approach of “let’s teach children how to use drugs safety”, this summit took a strong harm prevention approach of “let’s keep children off drugs in the first place, and help those who are addicted to get off, not continue in a ‘responsible’ use of their habit”.

One of the international speakers was Malou Lindholm from Sweden, a former member of the European Parliament representing the Greens.

She spoke eloquently and passionately on the problems Sweden had with a very liberal approach to drugs in the 1960s, and how over the next two decades Sweden turned the problem around. Indeed, it went from being a country with the worst drug problem in Europe to having the lowest incidence of drug abuse in the Western world.

This was achieved by a combination of measures such as:

-mandatory treatment policies;
-the implementation of strict policing and stiff penalties for drug offences; and
-extensive use of education and community involvement.

The outcome was a country where drug use was dramatically reduced. Dr Frans Koopman from the Netherlands gave a presentation about the very liberal drug policies in Holland and the problems that it is posing, especially to young people. He showed how criminality, drug abuse and other problems have escalated over the years with such a policy. For example, only two per cent of 12 to 18-year-olds used drugs on a monthly basis in 1984, but in 1996 this figure had risen to 11 per cent.

Jack Gilligan from the US spoke on the harm prevention policies there that have cut back drug use. For example, monthly drug use in the US peaked in 1979 at 14 per cent (25 million people). With a war on drugs declared, this figure fell to 6 per cent in 1998 (13.6 million people).

Another American, Sonny Arguinzoni, spoke of his early days as a gang member and drug addict. A religious conversion saw him freed of drugs, and he went on to start Victory outreach, an abstinence-based drug rehabilitation program which has successfully treated thousands of addicts worldwide.

Australian addicts also featured in the conference. One Aboriginal addict, Ben, gave his story. He too managed to break free of addiction and is now living a productive life, helping others break free of their addictions.

Other Australian speakers included Perth doctor George O’Neill who runs a successful Naltrexone program which has had very good results. Indeed, addicts in WA now have a 60 per cent greater chance of getting off heroin than in Victoria or NSW.

The work of Teen Challenge in Australia was also featured, and similar stories of addict’s lives being turned around were reported.

A similar theme of all the speakers was the poverty of harm-minimisation programs, and the need for prevention programs which keep people off drugs and rehabilitation programs which get them off drugs.

Most speakers were strongly opposed to heroin injecting rooms, as this simply leaves an addict in his or her bondage, and offers them no way out. Harm prevention and abstinence-based programs, instead, offer the only real hope for the disordered lives of addicts.

The conference finished with the passing of 21 resolutions which have been handed on to the Howard Government. These include:

-That all Australian jurisdictions should consider a restrictive drug policy such as the positive outcomes of Swedish Drug Policy and incorporate its objectives and best strategies in a way appropriate to the Australian environment.

-That recognising the legal frameworks relating to drug supply and use play an integral role in framing community norms, we recommend against the enactment of laws and setting of penalties which lead to the increased availability of illicit drugs.

-That recognising the undesirability of involving young drug users in the criminal justice system, we recommend moves to constructive coercive rehabilitation and recommend governments make this sentencing option more widely available.

-That we recommend the urgent establishment of additional detox and rehabilitation places to eliminate the current lengthy delays in many cities and towns.

Helpful recommendations indeed. It is hoped that the government will embrace them, and embrace them soon, for the sake of those killing themselves on drugs.

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