The debate about informed drug use

Drug safety card

The NSW government produced a booklet aimed at young drug users called Drug safety: Guide to a better night. The SMH reports that the state opposition and youth workers want the booklet destroyed, because it sends the ‘wrong’ message. Guiding drug users about how to have a ‘better night’ could be seen as endorsing drugs in the party setting.

It was great to see an alternative position in favour of the harm-reduction information booklet, written by Julie Bowen of Moreland Hall. The harm reduction philosophy is realistic about continued drug use and aims to make that drug use less harmful. After exploring common harms from drug use and ways to look after yourself and your friends, the booklet’s end message is:

Remember the best way to avoid problems with drugs is not to use them at all.

This is also the take-home message of the harm reduction approach. While using drugs, try to do all you can to reduce the harms to yourself and others who may be affect by your activities. Yet, always remember that abstinence is the only way to completely avoid harms.

Officially, since 1985, Australia’s drug policy has been described as harm minimisation, in which three approaches (supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction) are all aimed at reducing drug-related harms for the individual, their families, communities and society. This pragmatic approach is complex. For example, supply reduction activities may increase the harm experienced by drug users. Harm reduction activities may increase demand for a drug. Demand and supply reduction activities focused on one drug may increase harm by creating a trend towards a new, lesser-known drug. It is difficult to evaluate the effects of individual policies, especially when considering the whole system of health harms that harm minimisation policies target.

The argument against harm-reduction drug information, whether in booklets or websites, needs to be challenged. As Julie Bowen writes:

People need reliable information to make informed decisions and take care of themselves and each other. Information contained in the brochure could be the catalyst for a simple, life-saving action such as a person being rolled onto their side when unconscious. Drugs continue to play a role in the world in which we live in, therefore the only humane approach is to equip people to be aware of and manage the risks that they or their friends may face.

However, the anti-information argument also needs to be examined for aspects of truth, even by those who feel offended at the apparent lack of concern for the safety of drug users that comes through in the views of those supporting ‘zero tolerance’. It may be true that for some people, knowing how to use a drug ‘more safely’ may encourage them to try that drug or to use it more often. It is likely that the dangers or harms of some drugs put people off using them, and if these are reduced by detailed information about safer use, these people may ultimately use more drugs! However, if they do so and come to less harm overall, is this really a problem?

Taking the view that ‘informed drug use’ is desirable for those who choose to use drugs leads to activities that get appropriate information out to those that want it. For example, we could create a harm reduction app for the iPhone that would make it easy to access accurate information, such as that found in the NSW drug safety booklet, any time and place it was needed. Getting information to people when they are actually making decisions about drug use is a critical next step, in my view.

This article was also posted at betweenthelines