An Open Letter To Angela and Tony Wood: Stop. Please, Stop.

10 November 2014
Dear Angela and Tony Wood,

When I read today of the death of a young woman at a Sydney dance party as an apparent result of a drug overdose, my heart sank. At the senseless loss of a young life (although the media apparently believes we should be the more grieved because, as they take pains to point out to us, she was beautiful and the daughter of a wealthy family). And for the renewed debate about drugs which I knew would be stymied by you swiftly appearing in the media to advocate escalating the war on drugs, as you have for nearly twenty years since the ecstasy related death of your daughter, Anna, in 1995.

And sure enough, this morning there you were.

I was the same age as Anna, in Year 10 in 1995. I have lived long enough to develop bad knees and make stupid mistakes and travel and change careers and to fall in and out of love; and, eventually, to marry and have a family of my own. Anna missed all that, as you must be so keenly aware every day. As a parent myself now I can't, don't want to, imagine the unbearable grief of losing a child.

We all cope with grief in different ways. You have chosen to do so by doing what you perceive as using your daughter's death as a force for good - using her story to highlight the dangers of ecstasy, and advocating an all-out war on drugs as a means of facing this scourge.

As a youth worker, a former drug user, and a parent who worries what her own child will be getting up to, sooner than I like to think about, I'm begging you to stop.

Please stop what you're doing. For nearly twenty years you have been advocating the zero tolerance, war on drugs approach. And it hasn't worked. Yet every time a young attractive woman dies a drug related death in NSW, you pop up in the media, advising governments do more of policies that have failed.

You use your grief as a weapon, to shut down debate, to prevent a rational debate in the community about the use and regulation of recreational drugs, to examine evidence based practices, a change in approach. We have to wonder if you are actually concerned with reducing young peoples' use of drugs, or if your true, if subconscious, aim in your zero tolerance approach is to punish the malevolent forces you hold responsible for your daughter's death.

No one wants to see young people dying as a result of taking drugs. And it's important to remember most who do aren't pretty rich young things from loving homes behaving "out of character" at a dance party. Most are dealing with longer term drug problems, often with other factors of mental illness and disadvantage. How is a zero tolerance approach to help them, if they are threatened with criminal charges if they seek to get help? If we treat addiction as a crime, instead of the disease it is? By closing facilities such as the medically supervised injecting room, which has saved at least scores of lives since opening in 2001?

But let's look at Anna's death. What zero tolerance policies would have saved her? Harsher penalties for the manufacturer of the ecstasy she took, or the young woman who supplied it to her? What if Anna herself had feared arrest, spending a night in lock up, a criminal charge, if she'd been caught with the pill? It's hard to imagine you as her parents would have advocated for that if she had lived (and in the book Anna's Story, you sensibly remark that the trip to hospital to have her stomach pumped would have been "punishment enough").

Tragically, that was never an option for Anna. Because she took the pill, for one reason or another, and had no information about taking it safely. So she drank litres and litres of water. And when she became ill, a combination of fear and that lack of information caused her friends to delay seeking medical treatment. By the time Anna did get medical help, it was too late, and she died - not of ecstasy overdose, but of water intoxication. Two critical factors that could have been averted if harm minimisation policies were in place.

Would fear of a zero tolerance approach have stopped Anna from taking that pill? Perhaps, perhaps. Conversely, could harm minimisation policies have saved Anna - if she'd known to regulate her water intake, if her friends had been aware of the importance of seeking medical help and been unafraid to do so? Again, we will never know. But the possibility of preventing similar future deaths is tantalisingly there.

Your solution is simple and uncompromising. Zero tolerance. No one should be taking drugs in the first place. But you can't keep pretending the war on drugs is working. You cannot destroy the factors which lead young people to take drugs through the force of your pain.

We need a proper, grown up debate on drugs, but you seek to shut that down. In the United States, individual states are moving to decriminalise marijuana, but here in Sydney we regularly see police and sniffer dogs at train stations during rush hour, ready to charge any commuter who has the botanical equivalent of a few drinks in their pocket. I despair of the waste of resources (and I don't even smoke marijuana).

Let's acknowledge the current policies aren't working. Let's talk harm minimisation. Let's have a mature debate on evidence based practice, on how whether it's drugs or sex abstinence education doesn't work.

If this is all too hard, after twenty years of the take no prisoners approach, I understand. Please retreat from  the debate. Please stop using your loss to push well-intentioned but disastrous policies. Please accept that you are not experts on the drug debate and listen to those who are.

And next time, please, wait until the body of the latest young person lost to drugs is cold before you pop up in the media to peddle your agenda.



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