Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Capitalism and drug reform

Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Meredith Jacka

The past 12 months have seen a growing and increasingly militant movement to change the way police and politicians view the issue of drug use.

Physicians, lawyers, public health and social workers, and the families of people who use drugs, are publicly calling for a move away from treating drug use as a law and order issue to treating it as a health and social issue. Already, these campaigns are starting to make change.

The reclassification of Naloxone (a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose without affecting the body in other way) to make it available without a prescription is a move that will immediately start saving lives.

We’re also getting closer to having more safe injecting facilities, like the one in King’s Cross which has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of fatal overdoses and hasn’t increased drug use or trade in the area. At the same time there is a push to have pill testing done at music festivals and other hot spots for recreational drug use.

Without condoning drug use we must accept that people always have and always will use drugs. There’s no denying that sometimes drug use has devastating effects on the individual, loved ones and the community. But by and large those devastating effects are caused by the fact that the drugs are illegal.

Unlike tobacco and alcohol, which are Australia’s biggest killers, with currently illicit drugs like heroin or ecstasy, death is largely a result of their illegality. This is because the manufacturing process is unregulated, meaning substances can be mixed with anything from flour to rat poison, or even glass.

The strength varies from batch to batch meaning users have no way of knowing the purity of the substance, or even if it is what they are being told it is. The fact that these drugs are illegal also means that health programs that could prevent death, such as safe injecting facilities, have historically had difficulty gaining approval.

In the past year seven people have died and many more have been injured from taking drugs at music festivals. Tragically the drugs sold to these young people were toxic, but they were sold under the guise of being something far less harmful. Those deaths would have been avoidable, especially if pill testing was available to the users.

Pill testing would involve trained staff testing a small part of a substance in order to identify if there are any harmful adulterants present. If there’s anything in the substance that could lead to a potentially fatal outcome then the substance can safely be discarded.

Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president Dr Alex Wodak and emergency specialist Dr David Caldicott have said that they will start doing this in NSW, despite the opposition of police and politicians, even if it means breaking the law.

In the interests of not one more person dying needlessly from recreational drug use, this move should be commended and supported.

It was a community campaign of this nature that started the first needle and syringe programs in the 1980’s, which have saved millions of dollars and more importantly, thousands of lives. It also shows that undertaking determined direct action can pressure governments into changing their positions and implementing progressive reforms.

Ultimately campaigns for the lifesaving changes that we so urgently need must be linked with a fight to break with capitalism. Capitalism, a system that puts profits before people’s lives, will never allow the level of investment into healthcare, education or the other services that are needed to effectively and humanely address the issue of substance use.

If society was organised along socialist lines, and ordinary working class and young people had democratic control over how our resources were used, then large scale reforms could be implemented permanently.

Over time, substance use would become far less of a problem. When people take control of their destinies, when they have a bright future to look forward to, free from exploitation and oppression there will be a decreasing need for people to self-medicate.


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