Why are drug service providers at the top levels of commonwealth drug policy? Colliss Parrett, former Director of the Department of Health's Drugs of Dependence branch, discusses how drug elites are working against efforts to curb Australia’s drug problem.





Lyle Shelton:                         Well hello again and welcome to Voice for Values radio. It’s Lyle Shelton from the Australian Christian Lobby. It’s great to have your company today. This week we’re going to be talking about the issue of drugs and this is something which is in the media often. There’s often calls to legalise drugs like marijuana. The Greens would like to make drugs like heroin more freely available and I’m very privileged to have on the line today someone who has played a major role in this debate over many, many years in this nation and that is Colliss Parrett. Colliss, welcome to Voice for Values radio. 

Colliss Parrett:                      Thank you very much, Lyle and I thank you for this opportunity, and hello to all your listeners.

Lyle Shelton:                         It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here, Colliss. You had a distinguished career with the Department of Immigration but then got yourself involved in the drug debate as director of drugs of dependence. Can you just tell us a little bit about that, how you progressed from being a senior and distinguished public servant and how you developed this passion for the issue of addictive and dangerous and harmful drugs and got yourself into the policy debate in this nation. 

Colliss Parrett:                      Well, it started really back in 1985. I left immigration about ’78. I went to immigration, sorry I went to health on promotion into the drugs and dependence area. Now that was about the time that this harm minimisation, harm reduction…

Lyle Shelton:                         Okay Colliss, let me stop you there. Harm minimisation, that’s a really important concept in this debate. Just for listeners who wouldn’t be aware of why that is a crucial phrase, just explain that.        

Colliss Parrett:                      Well, harm minimisation as it is applied, as it was meant to apply, falls well short of the ideal of getting people drug-free as soon as possible. In other words, harm minimisation indicated by the very name that harm occurs and then you try to minimise it. Well, as a Christian and I think as a normal thinking person, I’m not happy with that at all. I want people to get off drugs. Now if there was no way to do that, I can understand harm minimisation but there are treatments that can get people off drugs quite successfully, up to 80 or 90 per cent and yet they are largely ignored and I’ll just touch on this briefly. 

Lyle Shelton:                         Just before you do, Colliss, so harm minimisation is the prevailing policy that state and federal governments apply to the addictive drug issue. Is that not right?    

Colliss Parrett:                      That’s correct and I opposed when it came in and of course I was a voice crying in the wilderness. I knew what was going to happen, not that I’m clairvoyant or anything but it was obvious. You see, the people must understand initially, first of all if you want to know anything about epidemics, drugs or whatever, or whether it’s flu or anything else or measles, there are golden rules of prevention. There’s primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. Now primary prevention of course, I’ll put it this way, I’ll give a very brief example of how it works so everyone is on the same page. Now let’s say I’m mayor of a town which is next to a river which has a swimming hole used by kids and adults alike and you learn the citizens are developing serious and persistent rashes after swimming as a result of a chemical irritant in the river, if you approach the company upstream that’s discharging the chemical and make it stop, you are engaging in primary prevention. You are removing the hazardous exposure and preventing rashes from occurring in the first instance. Then if you ask lifeguards to check swimmers as they get out of the river further down to look for signs of a rash that then can be treated right away, you are engaging in secondary prevention. You are not preventing rashes but you are reducing their impact by treating them early with the aim of swimmers regaining normal health quickly and going about their everyday lives as soon as possible. Finally, if you set up programs and support groups that teach people how to live with their persistent rashes, you are engaging in tertiary prevention. That means you are preventing, you are nor preventing rashes or necessarily dealing with them right away but you are easing their impact by helping people live with their rashes as best they can. Now they are essential for anyone to understand. Now that’s why I’m saying that our policy, harm minimisation, harm reduction puts far more weight on secondary and tertiary prevention than primary prevention.                          

Lyle Shelton:                         So Colliss, what does this look like for a heroin addict? How does our harm minimisation policy translate to a young person who is addicted to heroin?

Colliss Parrett:                      Well I’ll tell you how it works and has been work for, well 30 years. In 1991, the Department of Health reported there were 9,100 persons in Australia on the methadone maintenance program, which incidentally started up as a prevention program against heroin, however I’ll go on. In 1995, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that there were 25,000 persons on the MMP, the methadone maintenance program. In 2012, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare said there were 46,690 persons on that program. The latest estimate, that’s today basically, is up to 51,000 so during that time, the numbers have jumped from 9,100 to 51,000 and why did this happen?  

Lyle Shelton:                         Well it’s not just population growth, Colliss. It far outstrips that I take it to be what you’re saying. 

Colliss Parrett:                      No, no, no, no. This is going to happen and as the population grows, those numbers, unless something changes, those numbers will keep on increasing. Now let me put it this way. Why have those numbers increased so dramatically? When Dr O’Neill, for example, of Fresh Start in Perth has told me that he gets $3 million annually from the WA government but no funding from the Commonwealth, that he has performed about 10,500 slow release naltrexone implants in the past 17 years and that today, he has 25 patients to treat and seven of them are suffering amphetamine dependency or addiction and that in any five-year time period, up to 85 per cent are drug-free.

Lyle Shelton:                         Now Colliss just hold that thought. We’re coming up to the break but straight after, I want you to tell people what naltrexone is and why it’s effective. You and I know this but our listeners won’t. just hold that thought. You’re listening to Voice for Values radio. My guest is Colliss Parrett. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back after this.            

                                                Okay. Welcome back to Voice for Values radio. My guest is Colliss Parrett. He’s an expert on drug policy, has played a major role in this debate over recent decades, a lot of experience, and it’s just an absolute joy to have you sharing your expertise her, Colliss. Now just before the break you were explaining the effectiveness of naltrexone and why this doesn’t necessarily suit some of the government policy makers who are more interested in harm minimisation, which seems to maintain people in their addiction instead of getting them out of their addiction. Just explain what naltrexone is and why it’s important.

Colliss Parrett:                      Okay, I’ll do that. Now naltrexone is an opioid antagonist. What it does, under medical treatment, is it travels to the receptor cells on the brain, that’s what you would call the opioid receptors. Now naltrexone sits on those receptors and you can inject heroin say, after having the appropriate level of naltrexone taken in to your system and you will have no effect whatsoever because the heroin cannot get to the receptors because it’s blocked by the naltrexone, which means of course that it doesn’t take away immediately the need for a feeling of heroin but what it does is blocks. Now Dr O’Neill puts in subcutaneous implants, which are up to 12 months, but he recommends a top up after six months. Now let me get please if I may to the reason why this is not supported by what I would call drug elites. Now the drug elites are described in the House of Representatives report 2007 and I’ll just quote from it, the winnable war on drugs pages 98-101, it says, “as stated in chapter one, the drug industry elites comprising a range of peak drug bodies, academics and service providers receive considerable government support to promote, evaluate and deliver drug education and treatment policies. The committee is concerned that the entrenched position of the members of the drug industry elite and the policy community is a barrier to the open discussion of an addiction prevention policy for this country. A further barrier to examining alternative policies is the support by prominent members of the drug policy elite for decriminalisation and legalisation of some illicit drugs. Finally [it says] the committee considers that the involvement of the drug industry elites in the development of national illicit drug policy is undermining the implementation of the Commonwealth’s stated approach to illicit drugs. The committee believes the Commonwealth needs to rest back control of illicit drugs policy development from the states and territories and the drug industry elites.”

Lyle Shelton:                         Wow. Colliss, that is very powerful quote from a parliamentary report in 2007. This is what the parliamentarians are saying in having taken evidence and I take it we are still stalemated to this day in terms of being able to break through this harm minimisation, maintaining people in their addiction approach to drugs.  

Colliss Parrett:                      The drug industries, in that context that I just read, they are still active and are still happening.  

Lyle Shelton:                         And they would rather decriminalise drugs rather than try and get people off drugs. Now Colliss how is this playing out with the ice epidemic? I mean heroin was a big deal in the last few decades. We don’t hear a lot about it now. I’m sure it’s still a major scourge but the big drug of course is ice and party drugs. How are these so-called drug industry elites, what’s their approach to these terrible drugs and the havoc they’re bringing on our society?  

Colliss Parrett:                      If I may say so, there are signs, perhaps early signs that heroin is on the way back because I’ve read a number of papers which explain people are beginning to realise solely the huge dangers of using ice and some people are saying, well I think we’ll move from ice and they go over to heroin. So heroin is once again raising its ugly head but the overall, it doesn’t matter which drug it is, it doesn’t matter whether it’s ice or whatever it is, heroin or cocaine, the approach of the drug elites is basically the same. Essentially the same.   

Lyle Shelton:                         So how do we break through their ideology? If these parliamentarians couldn’t, and that was a very strong recommendation and quote that you read out from politicians who heard the evidence in a parliamentary inquiry, if they can’t smash the control of these elites that don’t really want to tackle the problem properly, what hope is there?     

Colliss Parrett:                      Well, I’ll tell you how difficult it is, just a second or two. Last night, I looked up the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Charter which has the following as an immediate objective. Quote “the immediate objectives of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation are: to seek the abolition of criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs of dependence and psychotropic substances throughout Australia.”

Lyle Shelton:                         So what’s a drug of dependence, Colliss? Is heroin? Is ice a drug of dependence? 

Colliss Parrett:                      Yes.

Lyle Shelton:                         So this Drug Law Reform people, they’re saying that they want drugs like ice and heroin decriminalised.      

Colliss Parrett:                      That’s right. The abolition of criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs of dependence and psychotropic substances throughout Australia. Now, that’s personal use. Well, once you remove all barriers for personal use, well it’s almost an open gate. 

Lyle Shelton:                         If you were a drug dealer, you’d be pretty happy about that.    

Colliss Parrett:                      Sorry?

Lyle Shelton:                         If you were a drug dealer, you’d be pretty happy about that, a public advocacy group recommending that.     

Colliss Parrett:                      Well, of course but there’s one more, if I may, just briefly. The Australian, there are two groups. The Australian parliamentary group on drug law reform, which is the parliamentary link to the Drug Law Reform Foundation and whose membership I was refused access to. I rang parliament and asked who are the MPs in this group? And they told me I couldn’t be told. It’s not accessible to the public and it says, the Charter, the foundation aims to promote the unequivocal opposition to policies of prohibition with regards to illicit drugs of dependence and psychotropic substances. The nationwide adoption of drug policies based on harm minimisation strategies. Now that’s in their Charter. I looked it up last night.

Lyle Shelton:                         Who are some of the key politicians involved in that group, just quickly Colliss cause we’re running out of time.

Colliss Parrett:                      Well I couldn’t find out. I mean I rang parliament and they wouldn’t tell me.

Lyle Shelton:                         That’s unbelievable. Colliss, we’re out of time. We’re clamping down on cigarette smoking but on the other hand, you’ve got a parliamentary group and a drug reform advocacy group saying we should decriminalise things. The world’s gone nuts.

Colliss Parrett:                      Well there you are.

Lyle Shelton:                         Colliss, unfortunately our time has escaped us but thank you for sharing your insights and your decades of experience in this issue. That I think is a great contribution and we’ll have to get you on again to talk again about this issue of drug liberalisation because it’s not an issue that’s going to go away any time soon. Colliss Parrett, thanks very much for your time today.

Colliss Parrett:                      Thank you very much, Lyle.