Taskforce needs broader brief to tackle ice epidemic

That the prime minister has announced a co-ordinated response to use of the drug ice in Australia is a good thing. That in making the announcement, he was joined not just by the minister for justice but by the assistant minister for health is a good thing also.

Worrying, however, is the hyperbole Tony Abbott is already attaching to the issue. The drug was “pernicious and evil” and an “absolute menace”. Worrying, too, is his apparent focus on policing.

“I want to say that as a citizen and as a parent, I am appalled at what is happening on our streets and in our homes. Ice is far more addictive than any other illicit drug. It does far more damage than any other illicit drug,” Abbott said as he announced his ice taskforce, pointedly doing so at the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Sydney.

“The propensity for violence, the propensity to subsequent very serious mental illness, the propensity to disfigurement which ice produces means that this is a drug epidemic way beyond anything that we have seen before now. I am determined that right around our country, we will take every possible step to combat this dreadful, dreadful scourge.”

Abbott once mentioned current funding for rehabilitation, in response to a question, but his rhetoric was overwhelmingly focused on law enforcement: “Right now, we are ramping up our response through our gangs work – our anti-gangs work – through our work on the borders, the additional money that we’re pouring into customs surveillance, because much of it is coming in from overseas and we do have an ever increasing success rate when it comes to intercepting it. But in every way and at every level, we are ramping up our efforts because of the terrible damage that it’s doing to our community.”

The figures on ice usage are appalling, as are the impacts of that usage. As many as 200,000 Australians use the drug; a quarter of those do so weekly. The Australian Crime Commission reports that number to be growing, as are interceptions of precursor chemicals and ice-related arrests.

But policing is not the answer. The war on drugs has failed. Since US president Richard Nixon started the fight 40 years ago, drug use has only climbed.

According to the most recent Global Commission on Drug Policy, in the 10 years to 2008 worldwide use of opiates increased by 34.5 per cent. The use of cocaine increased 27 per cent. Criminalisation is not a deterrent. It has more costs than it has benefits.

While Abbott’s justice minister and his assistant health minister both seem to admit as much, he does not. In announcing the taskforce, to be headed by former Victorian police commissioner Ken Lay, the justice minister accepted “we’re not going to be able to police our way out of this”. The assistant health minister used the same phrase.

But nowhere was there discussion of alternatives to criminalisation. For the taskforce to have any credibility, it will have to deal with this. The solutions will be social and medical. They will not be found by police or the courts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 11, 2015 as "Ice squad ".

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