MICK PALMER. Australia’s Illicit Drugs Policy – There Really is a better Way

For over half a century Australian Governments have relied heavily on law enforcement to curb the drug trade, but, despite increasingly sophisticated and efficient policing strategies and operations Australia’s illicit drugs problems have continued getting bigger and the marketplace ever more dangerous, and prosperous If we are to improve the outcomes we achieve we have to stop simply being “tough on drugs” and start being “smart about drugs”. There is a way, we have a responsibility to explore it. 

For over half a century our governments have relied heavily on law enforcement to curb the drug trade and reduce drug use.

Sadly, however, despite, huge funding; ever increasing levels of police effectiveness and genuine effort, and the imposition of very lengthy prison terms for serious drug offences, the drug trade has just kept getting bigger,   more dangerous and more prosperous.

The simple over-riding fact is, with the best intentions in the world, we cannot arrest and imprison our way out of our present dilemma.

We must be prepared to try new ideas and approaches.

This is not to suggest “going soft” on drugs but rather “getting smarter” about drugs.

The central plank of our current illicit drugs policy is “Harm Minimisation”. Sadly, we have failed miserably in our attempts to achieve this aim and indeed many aspects of current policy actually aggravate harms rather than reduce them.

So what sensibly can be done or genuinely considered?

As a starting point, recognise that, to improve its effectiveness, Australia’s illicit drug policy must be reframed as primarily a social, health and economic issue, with policing playing a strong, targeted support role, aimed at the organised criminal marketplace where the benefits of police intervention are highest and the risks and dangers, particularly to the most vulnerable in our society, are lowest.

Develop strategies to better understand the health and well-being dangers to social users and addicts, which arise from them purchasing (often tainted or corrupted) drugs from a totally unregulated black market and then being treated as criminals for doing so.

Have the courage to trial new approaches but do so gradually and incrementally, with care taken to ensure that the community understands the research and the reasons and benefits underpinning the changes and supports the journey as it unfolds.

INCREMENTAL STEPS COULD INCLUDE:

Actively promote awareness and understanding of current decriminalisation arrangements in place in Australian jurisdictions’ – and the benefits being achieved. 

Adopt decriminalisation as a firm national strategy for personal and recreational use of illicit drugs, nationwide.

Introduce a policy that clearly distinguishes between anti-social behaviour and the drug use that may have contributed to it. Punish the criminal behaviour – treat the drug use.

Implement a policy that aims to engage with and support drug users, not isolate and punish them. 

Create an environment within which people are likely to talk to each other – to learn and to teach – and to change behaviours.

As a trial, commence off site drug testing (of pills etc.) at festivals and similar public gatherings with a view to encouraging users to –

  • become more aware of the quality and toxicity of the drug they are planning to use, and the dangers the drugs may pose,
  • Tell the truth about any adverse reactions that may result from such use and to report accurately any health problems to authorities.
  • Minimise or reduce potential harms and create an environment to change behaviours.

Increase funding of treatment options for people with drug use and addiction problems to a level sufficient to create the capacity, quality, and flexibility of treatment options to meet realistic demand.

Introduce initiatives to reduce the size and profitability of the black market with the intent of gradually moving drug supply   from the black market to the white market.

Implement strategies aimed at increasing employment and re-engagement options for addicts and released prisoners.

Significantly increase the certainty and cycle of funding for NGO treatment facilities.

Consider the establishment – on a trial basis – of ‘Controlled Drug Consumption Rooms’ to assist in containing, managing and reducing episodes of drug abuse and the consequent likely  harms.

Take active steps to improve the accuracy and relevance of drug testing of vehicle drivers.

Prohibit any form of advertising relating to regulated supply and strictly govern and regulate approved suppliers and cultivators.

Consider the implementation of pilot studies in ‘at risk’ remote and low socio-economic urban communities to assess causes, problems, social healing options, as well as pathways towards better health and well-being.

Identify and engage local champions to drive and encourage the pilot study programs with a view to creating the pilot areas as centres of excellence.

Increase capacity and use of interventions for young people and link to meaningful workforce strategies.

Any review and reform process must include a strong strategy to engage with the public and it is recognised that community leadership and/or support will be crucial to the achievement of meaningful improvement in drug policy outcomes.

To best facilitate this process, it is suggested that the language surrounding our drug policy be changed and the reference to “Tough on Drugs” replaced by “Smart about Drugs”.

Mick Palmer AO APM is a 33 years career police officer and barrister at law, who had service as Commissioner of the AFP and of the NT Police.

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3 Responses to MICK PALMER. Australia’s Illicit Drugs Policy – There Really is a better Way

  1. Thank you Mick Palmer for your courage and leadership in this critical policy area. In respect of your point:
    “Take active steps to improve the accuracy and relevance of drug testing of vehicle drivers.”

    I think this is an incredibly important step in the process of decriminalisation. The current all-or-none qualitative road side testing for drug use and the regular testing of workers in many industries is creating massive problems by taking off the road or out of work many safe recreational users, destroying their capacity to work (extremely relevant in country areas) and thus putting many families at risk of breaking up. It also promotes the development of much more dangerous synthetics that stay ahead of the testing regimes. We need an easily applied quantitative roadside-style test of competence to drive, operate machinery or engage in professional work (e.g. nurses, doctors, miners, teachers). Is anyone aware of research being undertaken in this area?

  2. Ian Webster says:

    Mick, you make what I think is one of the most important points about this and related problems, and that is the language used – with its undertones of them and us, of right and wrong, of morality.

    During the Obama administration, his office issued, I was going to say directives, but it would be more appropriate to say, strong advice, to leading medical and governmental organisations to “change the language of addiction”. The idea being to get rid of ‘addict’, ‘drug abuse’, ‘drug abuser’, and related words. The Diagnostic Services Manual of the American Psychiatric Association – DSM 5 – even goes further, aiming to remove the word addiction from the medical lexicon and replace it with degrees of severity of dependence. In doing so, I think the community would lose the capacity to characterise the social and behavioural attributes of the impairments and disabilities of ‘addictions’ whatever their basis or cause; but it makes the point that these human problems are heavily stigmatised and the people affected are so discriminated against.

    Obama and others have been seeking to create an environment which would encourage medical treatment and access to evidence-based programs such as opioid substitution – methadone and buprenorphine – which are so poorly funded and inaccessible in the US.

    Trump, on the other hand, will turn the clock back as the few programs which exist are defunded, Parity in Health Care is wound back and absolutist and abstinence orientated interventions are funded in their place.

  3. Valmor Morais says:

    Mick, this is an incredible article.

    It would be great to see Australia leading this project of decriminalization of some drugs.

    All Governments around the world have failed in attempting to be Tough on the Drugs.

    The right approach is indeed about being smart about it.

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