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The media plays an important role in the public debate regarding Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD). AOD Media Watch is run by a group of researchers and clinicians who work in the field. We aim to improve the reporting of AOD issues through putting the spotlight on stories that contain misinformation, perpetuate unnecessary moral panic and stigma.

At AOD Media Watch, our mission is to improve media reporting on AOD-related issues. We engage with the media by critical analysis of articles published across Australia. We offer feedback to journalists by celebrating great journalism and highlighting poor reporting.

9th April 2019: Law enforcement are not drugs experts

“No compassion, no second chances for the drug dealer” insisted Glenn Weir in a recent Herald Sun story, just one of many dehumanising statements leveled at people involved with drugs by the Assistant Commissioner throughout the article.

Too often the perspectives of police and law enforcement are presented by the media as facts. The Herald Sun recently provided a platform for Victorian Assistant Police Commissioner Glenn Weir to present his opinions on drug use. By not engaging with other sources, this information is likely to be perceived by the public as facts, rather than opinion.

So let’s fact-check some of Glenn Weir’s opinions:

Weir states that pill testing is “nonsensical”. Pill testing reduces drug harms without increasing drug use. It has even been suggested that Australian drug policy has a responsibility to implement pill testing – countries with access to pill testing have avoided lethal batches of drugs, while these same batches have caused harms in other countries that did not have access to pill testing.

Weir uses police statistics to suggest that methamphetamine use has increased. In reality, increased arrests do not mean increased use. Data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey suggests methamphetamine use is at record lows. Ironically, this increase in methamphetamine arrests may have increased methamphetamine harms. It is ludicrous to suggest that ‘no compassion’ can reduce harm. Incarceration and socio-economic penalties cannot reduce more harm than pill testing, consumption spaces and clean paraphernalia, especially when incarceration and penalisation directly reduces access to these resources.

The uncritical promotion of Glenn Weir’s opinion alongside statistics that show arrests for drug use are increasing implies that Weir’s opinions are a potential solution to drug problems. They aren’t. Weir’s approach is nothing new, and it is not informed by evidence. After over a century of expansion of drug prohibition, drug use continues to grow. This may seem ‘amazing’ to Weir, but it is no surprise to many drug policy experts.

Weir suggests that drug use leads consumers to commit violent crime, but there is no mention of alcohol’s role in this relationship. Alcohol is far more likely to be associated with violent crime than illicit drugs. The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Supply and Use of Methamphetamine stated outright that alcohol is the greatest cause of violence in the community. If Weir is advocating against drug use, why does he not also advocate against the consumption of alcohol?

Rather, Weir states that alcohol consumption should be promoted as an alternative to drug consumption by reducing alcohol costs. Not only does this strategy encourage consumption of a substance more likely to result in accidental death, the cost of an evening drinking alcohol in Australia, both within and outside of music festivals, is much more than the cost of an evening consuming most illicit drugs. If the alcohol market is to undercut the illicit drug market, a much bigger cost reduction is needed.

Weir consistently employs stigmatising language toward people who deal drugs, including likening them to ‘terrorists’. Language of this type invites the public to direct blame for drug-related-harms toward low level drug-sellers, a technique often employed by law-enforcement advocates seeking to legitimise the ongoing drug war. It also paints those who sell drugs as one-dimensional bastions of evil, unworthy of human compassion.

If we learn about drugs and drug policy from people who don’t understand them; whose careers and ideologies literally depend on misunderstanding them; we will likely see drug use and drug harms continue to increase alongside the spread of misinformation. A plea to all media outlets publishing content concerning drugs and drug policy –

Please consult with relevant experts before making material concerning drugs and drug policy public. Law enforcement experts are not drug experts.

Authors

Liam Engel & Emily Blatchford, Students for Sensible Drug Policy

AOD Media Watch Reviewers

Dr Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer of Addiction at Edith Cowan University

Katie Horneshaw, op ed columnist and features writer

Disclaimer: The authors takes full responsibility for the content of this article.

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Journalists that would like to seek expert commentary on drug issues can contact AOD Media Watch who can provide referrals to a range of experts on the issue being reported. Guidelines for journalists can be accessed from our website and resources for the media are available from Mindframe.