If you were walking to work and saw a stranger shooting up heroin, what would you do?
If you’re like most people, you’d probably ignore them and keep going. If you were feeling particularly Samaritan, you might even stop and make sure they’re ok.
Unfortunately, the journalists of The Daily Telegraph aren’t like most people. Instead, it seems their natural reaction is to pull out their camera, take a photo, and use it in yet another scare campaign against drug users.
Indeed, this is what happened last Friday when the paper published a photo on its front page of a man shooting up in Surry Hills, with the headline: “A Shot In The Heart”.
It’s quite a confronting image. Heroin is a potentially dangerous drug – it’s highly addictive and many of us know someone who has had their life adversely affected through its use. And perhaps it’s normal to be concerned about its use in our neighbourhoods, or near our families.
However, twenty years of scaremongering for harsher drug possession penalties hasn’t helped overcome the issue of drugs. And for us to have a sensible conversation about the way forward, headlines like this are not helpful.
Dr Marianne Jauncey, medical director at the Kings Cross Supervised Injecting Centre, recently told reporters that clients that are distressed about the tabloid newspaper’s treatment of the issue. The doctor is particularly worried that such portrayals could prevent drug users from seeking help.
“There’s very much an issue about continuing to demonise (problem drug users), as it doesn’t help anybody. All of us want to fix it, no matter what side of the debate you’re on. All of us want less problem drug use, but emotions and morals can get in the way,” Dr Jauncey remarked.
She believes the effect of reporting like this, and calls for harsher drug possession penalties generally, is that habitual users are less likely to come forward and get the assistance they need.
“We all want them to get better and have the courage to seek help. Stories like this have the exact opposite effect that everybody would want. When you splash their face all over the front page of the paper, people become vulnerable, upset and tend to turn inwards. Why on earth would you say yes, I’m like that person? It absolutely further stigmatises people who are users and (makes them) less likely to seek help.”
The Press Council agrees. Under its guidelines, publications should “avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”.
Those like Dr Jaucey know all-to-well that this guidance hasn’t stopped the tabloids in the past. The Supervised Injecting Centre is one of the few victories achieved by harm reduction advocates in recent times, but it came with a struggle. Although the centre was opened in 2001, it took almost 10 years for it to gain permanent approval – no thanks to tabloids and radio shock jocks stoking opposition to it.
“It’s been said before, but it needs to be said again and again until it is done – this place needs to be shut down now,” published The Daily Telegraph in 2006. That headline was accompanied by photographs of around 100 “potentially deadly blood-tainted needles” dumped near the clinic, inferring that this was a consequence of having the centre there.
There was just one problem, the claims were untrue. Although someone had dumped the needles there, there was no evidence they had come from the injecting centre. In fact, the evidence was to the contrary.
“They were most certainly not syringes used by drug users.” Dr van Beek, former head of the Centre, said at the time “They were also not the brand of syringes distributed in this area.”
These inconsistencies did not stop critics of drug reform from the exploiting the report. Later that day, former-opposition leader Peter Debnam called a press conference arguing for the closure of the centre, and assuring that “… no other injecting rooms will be opened up in any other suburbs.”
A decade later, we now know the centre has been a resounding success, especially when compared to the effects of harsher drug possession penalties.
The annual cost of the Injecting Centre is about $3 million, roughly equivalent to the annual cost of imprisoning 30 people. While the benefits of incarceration are questionable at best, the Injecting Centre produces larger financial savings than it costs to run – while fears of increased crime and usage have been disproven.
“Harm-reduction approaches can only work if governments and policymakers alike recognise the complexity of the “drug problem”. No single solution exists for all kinds of drug users, or all kinds of drug use.” writes Gideon Lasco, a drug policy expert at the University of Amsterdam.
Mr Lasco uses Portugal to demonstrate his point. In 2001, the nation bought in new
drug possession reforms that see drug users sent to three-person local committees, rather than handed a criminal conviction, if they’re found in possession of small quantities of drugs.
These committees consider a range of interventions depending on the person before them. Many are encouraged to seek treatment, while others may be handed a fine to discourage further use.
Ten years on, drug use rates have not increased, while drug-related deaths, as well as problematic and adolescent drug use, have decreased.
This is the kind of sensible, evidence-based approach is hard to ignore. However achieving sensible reform is made more difficult while tabloids sensationalise the issue of drugs, and demonise drug users.