The Commissioner of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into Ice, Dan Howard QC, will now consider what amounts to a draft report by Council Assisting, Sally Dowling SC. He will submit his officIal report in January, to be then considered by the NSW Government. Council Assisting accepts that relying heavily on attempts to cut drug supplies has not only failed but seems to have made a bad situation even worse. The 104 draft recommendations support increased emphasis on harm reduction, expanded and improved drug treatment achieved with enhanced funding and some form of drug decriminalisation.
Governments around the world are having an increasingly difficult time defending drug prohibition from relentless and growing criticism. The NSW government is no exception. Over recent decades, the illicit drug market has expanded and become much more dangerous. However, estimating the size of this drug market is complicated by its illicit nature. Unfamiliar drugs reaching communities often cause considerable concern as the health care system learns to adjust. Also, it takes time for families and communities to start to learn what to expect from new drugs and how to cope with them.
Methamphetamine, readily available in Australia for more than two decades, is similar to dexamphetamine which was the main stimulant drug available before methamphetamine. The crystalline form of methamphetamine produces a vapor which can be inhaled after being gently heated. The vapor form increases the strength of the effect of the drug by speeding up delivery to the brain. The result has been growing reports of havoc, especially in rural and disadvantaged communities.
There have been many major official inquiries into illicit drugs in Australia since the 1970s. Many of these inquiries made thoughtful conclusions from which sensible recommendations were proposed. But few of these recommendations were ever adopted by governments. Official inquiries into drugs have tended to function more as a pressure valve than vehicles for much needed reform.
The conclusions reached in this draft report are certainly consistent with the overwhelming majority of submissions made and the evidence heard. These days, advocates for basing drug policy heavily on criminal justice measures are a rapidly shrinking minority. But governments always find consideration of sensible drug policy to be very difficult. The political cost of supporting any reform seems to be falling while the political cost of opposing all reform seems to be rising. The NSW Berejiklian government recently spent a great deal of political capital ensuring that NSW decriminalised abortion, the last jurisdiction in the country to do so. The NSW government has also intransigently rejected the many recommendations from diverse and reputable sources to allow pill testing at youth music events. So in one sense, it will be little surprise if the Berejiklian government rejects any of the more far reaching recommendations of this inquiry. On the other hand, rejecting all or most recommendations will have significant political costs, especially in rural areas.
Although no doubt some will dismiss the draft conclusions and recommendations as too radical, they are anything but. High level political support for harm reduction has steadily diminished over the years despite generally strong evidence of its effectiveness, safety and cost effectiveness. Funding and support for drug treatment has also dwindled over the years. Even the (then) NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione AO, APM, was shocked to find how hard it was to try to arrange drug treatment for the son of a friend. Stigma against people who use drugs is very strong and a major barrier for people seeking treatment or other needed services. Yet stigma is an inevitable result of criminalising personal drug use and possession.
Former NSW Director of Public Prosecution, Nicholas Cowdery QC, an advisor to the Inquiry but speaking in a personal capacity, has argued persuasively, that ultimately control and regulation of illicit drugs is desirable and unavoidable. No doubt different arrangements will be required for different drugs. Drug law reform will inevitably be a slow and incremental process with the scrapping of penalties for personal use and possession (‘decriminalisation’) only the first step in that long journey.
Australia has gone from being among the international leaders in drug policy to becoming something of a laggard. Even if the recommendations of this inquiry are rejected now, they will inevitably in large part be accepted at some time in the future. Many other countries are now moving in that direction. It has taken several decades of debate to reach this point. There is still a long way to go. Drug law reform is a slow process.
Dr Alex Wodak AM is an Emeritus Consultant at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, where he was the Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service from 1982 to 2012. Together with colleagues he established Australia’s first needle syringe program and first Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.