With anger and frustration growing over the dramatic increase in heroin-related deaths, Australians have been immersed in a contentious debate over whether to follow the lead of some European countries and freely give the drug to long-term addicts.
But a proposed experiment, which would have given free heroin to 1,000 addicts in three cities for two years, was turned down by Prime Minister John Howard Aug. 19.
Even though many national and state-level police, justice, and health ministers had originally endorsed the experiment in July, the prime minster, who was away at the time, said he had serious misgivings. "It's hard to say that you shouldn't at least give a trial to something, but you have to put me down as being a profound skeptic about the social advantage of legalizing things that constitute a problem," he told journalists. "I remain unconvinced there is a social benefit [in legalizing the drug]."
The theory behind the proposal, developed by the Australian National University in Canberra in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Criminology, held that if addicts could get heroin through medical clinics instead of on the street, they would in the long term try to rehabilitate themselves and crime would decline significantly.
Kate Carnell, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory and a supporter of the experiment, accused Mr. Howard of giving in to popular pressures. Commentators also attribute the government's change of heart to a media campaign that called the ministers who supported the plan "drug peddlers in business suits."
Statistics show that the number of deaths from heroin overdoses has increased by 700 percent in the past 20 years, with about 550 dying a year. At least 100,000 Australians use heroin.
The Australian Medical Association, which supports the experiments, maintains that the proposed tests are necessary to find a better way to treat heroin addicts. Keith Woollard, AMA's national president, says the current treatment of curing addiction by giving methadone - a heroin substitute - has failed to help some long-term users.
ANOTHER proponent of the plan, Gabriele Bammer of the Australian National University in Canberra, strenuously rejects claims that the tests would have led to "a softening of attitudes on drugs."
The proposal follows a three-year Swiss experiment, which found that criminal activity, unemployment, and homelessness dropped dramatically among 1,146 addicts after they were given controlled supplies of heroin from clinics. But both Swiss and Australian critics of the Swiss test say few people who were involved in that program became free of addiction, and they have questioned the methods used to gather information.
Dr. Bammer says the proposed Australian experiment would have been more "rigorous" than the Swiss one and would have examined social effects more closely.
Anglican Bishop Richard Randerson in Canberra says his church backs the experiment, but with some qualifications. Its support is part of what he calls "the morality of the lesser evil."