It would have been better if the Premier had called it – and called it sooner, but at last NSW is to have another drug summit. The NSW MPs from across the political spectrum who have banded together to organise next month's Harm Minimisation Summit are to be congratulated for reaching out to each other to encourage rational discussion of an issue that is all too often hijacked by emotion, prejudice and politics.
In voting for independents and minor parties in record numbers in this month's federal election, Australians have indicated they are tired of politics as usual and want their political leaders to search for solutions rather than score political points. The four backbench organisers of the summit have shown it can be done even in a time of toxic partisan politics – and they are following a fine example.
Back in 1999, this newspaper published a shocking front-page photograph of a teenage heroin addict. The photo prompted then premier Bob Carr to hold a drug summit and in its wake the leader of the opposition, John Brogden, joined Carr in bipartisan support for the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross, which has saved lives and referred thousands to drug treatment.
But illegal drug markets are dynamic and political thinking needs to be too. The illicit drug scene today is different to that facing law enforcement, health authorities, parents and young people 17 years ago. Responses need to be recalibrated.
Today, illicit drugs can be ordered online and drug cooks are constantly looking for new chemical combinations. Young people are partying, popping pills and dying at outdoor music festivals. The evidence is building that the use of ice, or crystal methamphetamine, is climbing, with a new study released in February suggesting that its growing popularity is not simply users of methamphetamine powder, or speed, switching to ice but is being fed by new, often young, users of the drug. Purity of the drug is going up while prices are coming down. And mental health admissions for methamphetamine-related psychosis are rising steadily.
Against this backdrop we have a confusingly inconsistent state government when it comes to addressing the challenges contemporary drug use presents. We have a Premier who has been admirably willing to listen to the arguments in favour of medical marijuana but mocked the Labor member for Summer Hill Jo Haylen as the member for "Summer Pills" for advocating pill testing at music festivals. This is a harm minimisation proposal advocated by senior doctors, which deserves more than cheap shots in Parliament. The government says it "respects the experts" on pill testing but doesn't seem to be engaging with them. And there are plenty within Labor with similarly closed minds.
These are not easy issues. Harm minimisation measures, such as pill testing and smoking rooms for ice users, need careful, evidence-based consideration, which is why this newspaper has been calling for a drug summit for 18 months to bring users, health workers, researchers and politicians together to share information and work towards multi-faceted solutions.
Now there is an opportunity for this to happen, which is why we encourage all MPs to put aside adversarial politics, both between and within parties, attend the summit and give this issue the serious attention it deserves.
Originally published in The Sun Herald on the 24 July 2016