Australia is in the midst of a huge drug-policy public debate, mostly centred on heroin. In New South Wales, the State government called a “Drug Summit” from May 15 to 21.
On May 3, a devoted group of United Church clergy, health professionals and social workers opened a “Tolerance Room” at their Wayside Chapel in Sydney, where they provided a clean, safe place for injection drug users to inject. They claimed their “T-room” was founded upon the idea of church as sanctuary, and said they were only going to be open for four weeks. There was an on-site nurse and a social worker available.
After two semi-polite police visits, fifteen uniformed and plain-clothed cops raided the T-Room on May 12. They gave “court-attendance notices” for drug use to the three users who were there at the time, but didn’t take anyone away. The T-room decided to shut down pending the outcome of the Drug Summit.
The next day even Australia’s public prosecutors were calling for a change to the drug laws. The Director of Public Prosecutions for South Australia spoke out in favour of heroin being given free to addicts, and said that he had no objection to marijuana being sold “from the corner deli.” His peers in New South Wales and Canberra backed his statements.
In this climate, the Drug Summit itself spurred a lot of media coverage. After two weeks of seminars, discussions and focus groups, the summit’s final recommendations included the creation of safe injecting rooms and removing jail terms for possession and cultivation of small amounts of cannabis.
NSW State Premier Bob Carr was initially opposed to any talk of harm reduction or decriminalization. However, during the Drug Summit he publicly changed his mind, and became a surprise supporter of safe injecting rooms. He said this was the hardest decision he’d ever made, and that his previously hard-line views were changed by speakers such as the police royal commissioner, Justice James Wood.
Carr was less enthusiastic about relaxing the State’s cannabis-use laws. “It’s something the Government is going to investigate before we move on this,” he said. “That’s very much a cautionary note.”
The Nimbin Hemp Embassy crew attended the summit as well. They transported their mighty 12 metre joint to Parliament on a broken-down bus, where they held an “alternative summit” and lit lanterns in memory of the drug war dead.
The impending drug summit became confession time for some members of the Australian Parliament. Opposition leader Kerry Chikarovski revealed that she had smoked a few joints while at university in the 1970s. MP Richard Jones upped the ante, explaining that he smoked up once every two weeks, and had once been high in Parliament “four or five years ago.”
Jones claimed that six other MPs currently smoked marijuana, and that at least half the 135 MPs have used marijuana, based on a survey of federal parliamentarians.