A Great LEAP Forward: Norm Stamper in Australia

Former Seattle police chief and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) activist Dr. Norm Stamper toured Australia in October, debuting at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney on October 4, where he spoke on the proposition that “all forms of drug use should be made legal”. He continued with this dangerous theme during his month-long tour, speaking to 60 different meetings in five cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Perth Brisbane and Canberra – addressing senior police, politicians, health workers and Rotarians. The tour ended with an address to the Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform at the Commonwealth Parliament House on the October 27.

According to Stamper, drug policy in the Americas is on the cusp of major reform as countries in Central and South America began to break away from the US prohibition model, threatening even the US homeland in a domino effect as drug law reform spread across the western hemisphere. In Mexico, Argentina and Columbia personal drug use has been decriminalized. “Ecuador and Brazil are poised to do the same. If other countries in Latin America lead the way, perhaps my country will follow, a fascinating concept.”

When Mexico recently decriminalized drugs, Dr. Stamper noted that US President Barack Obama did not call Mexico, as George Bush did to prevent a previous Mexican initiative. “That’s an extraordinary advance for us. The US respecting the sovereignty of a foreign government.”

Dr. Stamper’s tour reinvigorated debate on drug law reform in Australia; blighted during Prime Minister John Howard’s years with his “Tough on Drugs” policy and the ferocious support for this policy from Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers (70% of Australian newspapers are owned by Murdoch).

Former Australian Capital Territory (ACT) health minister and advocate of drug law reform, Michael Moore, credits Dr. Stamper with reopening the drug policy debate in Australia. In the 1990s, Michael Moore was on the forefront of drug law reform with the ACT government pushing for a scientific trial of medically prescribed heroin to users. Frightened that this would ‘send the wrong message’, the US applied economic, diplomatic and political pressure to stop the heroin trial. The Drug Warriors were afraid of Australia joining the Netherlands and Switzerland in conducting radical drug experiments that would undermine the system of prohibition worldwide.

At the height of the heroin trial controversy, US citizen Rupert Murdoch’s vast Australian newspaper empire came down on the trial like a tabloid jackboot. Professor Bob Douglas, the man who developed the ACT trial, accused the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph of ‘twisting and distorting’ the trial with a ‘sustained press campaign’. In a textbook illustration of the way support for harsh new drug laws is manufactured by creating folk devils and moral panics, heroin users were demonized as junkies living in a “heroin hell of their own making”. The Daily Telegraph urged Prime Minister Howard to oppose the ‘wickedness’ of the heroin trial. In this way, consent was contrived for Howard’s introduction of “Tough on Drugs”, an unimaginative capitulation to US policy that has blighted Australian drugs policy ever since.

Michael Moore remembers Murdoch’s campaign with bitterness: “I still have twenty to thirty articles from the Daily Telegraph complaining not just about the heroin trial but attacking people who used drugs. It was appalling,” he said. Now the chief officer of the Public Health Association of Australia, Moore is pleased to see the green shoots of drug law reform re-emerging after the wasteland of the Howard years.

He sees the heroin trial as a reminder that the danger of pushing too hard is that you can lose and undo the good that has already been done. “For the past ten years (the Howard years) we have been struggling to maintain significant harm-reduction initiatives like needle exchanges and the safe injecting rooms.”
Moore would like to see the reintroduction of the proposed heroin trial, but he does not see Australia taking the lead on drug policy again. “The current Prime Minister (Kevin Rudd) would not be described as a social progressive by many people. Change under Labor will be evolutionary not revolutionary.”

The man whose proposed scientific heroin trial once threatened the US system of prohibition is far more circumspect these days and sees a more limited Australian role.

“The Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries realize the enormous damage that the War on Drugs is doing to their communities and they are leading reform,” he said. “Change will occur in the US and Australia will follow.”

Dr John Jiggens is a writer and journalist who has published several books including The killer cop and the murder of Donald Mackay, Marijuana Australiana, The Sydney Connection and, with Jack Herer, the Australian version of The Emperor Wears No Clothes.