BOB DOUGLAS. Changing drug law and practice to help rather than harm.

Apr 3, 2018

Last week Australia21, ( ), hosted a summit of experts on drug treatment, drug law and the social impact of drug use in Australia. 

The signatories included a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, people who have been actively engaged in research into alcohol and drug use for periods as long as 40 years, researchers into the criminal justice system, prisoner rehabilitation, domestic violence and child protection, as well as church agencies working in various aspects of the welfare space. 

The meeting agreed to a statement that reads as follows:

The 34 signatories to this statement, call on Australia’s federal, state and territory governments to treat drug use primarily as a health and social issue and to remove criminal sanctions for personal use and possession of all drugs. We make this call because our own professional experience provides overwhelming evidence that current Australian drug laws, although well-intentioned, create and/or worsen a wide range of health and social harms. There are complex two-way interactions between the punitive approach to drug use and social problems, including poverty, social disadvantage, unemployment, homelessness, family violence, child protection interventions, mental illness and suicide. Poor drug policy also leads to further crime. The human and financial costs of the negative impacts of our current drug laws are borne not just by drug users, but by their families and communities, and the nation as a whole.  We have agreed to work together to improve public awareness of (a) the negative impacts of the current drug laws and the way they are interpreted and implemented, and (b) the real and tangible health and social benefits of drug law reform.”

One of the participants, a former heroin user, who had spent 10 years in prison and now, as a qualified lawyer admitted to The Supreme Court, dedicates her time practising as a  lawyer, for marginalised and disadvantaged citizens said to the group: “Until people are educated in local rural and regional areas as well as in the cities, and until legislators and the people who have the power actually “get it” and understand what and why people do what they do, and change the legislation, we are not going to get any kind of drug law reform. Because even if you beat the drug addiction itself, you have ongoing life obstacles, that 90% of the time are what send people back to relapsing. Because it is too hard and they go back to what they know”

Another participant, who is administrator of a coalition of social welfare agencies, said  “we need to reject (current) policies that increase death, disease, violence and corruption and support changes in policy and law that will increase safety for all, including people who are using illicit substances, their families, neighbours and community.”

It has been a busy week for people interested in alcohol and drug use and their impacts on Australian society. Both the Victorian government and the Australian government have this week released important reports and recommendations about drug law and drug policy and practice.

The summit in Parliament House, Melbourne was co-hosted by the Melbourne MLC, Fiona Patten, who is a member of the seven-person parliamentary enquiry, which tabled the report of its year-long study in the Victorian Parliament this week. The group is proposing very substantial reform in Victorian drug policy.  The group of three Labour, three Liberal and one Reason Party members visited Geneva, Lisbon, London, Vancouver, Denver and Sacramento as well as Wellington New Zealand to explore how different jurisdictions manage the problems of substance use and impacts on other communities and met with agencies involved in international drug policy and control. The committee received 230 submissions from a diverse range of experts and stakeholders working in various areas of drug policy and law reform in addition to individual members of the community. They held nine days of public hearings and visited various drug and health facilities in Melbourne and Sydney. The 50 recommendations of the more than 600-page report, tabled in the Victorian Parliament this week are wide-ranging and worthy of debate and discussion in all states and territories and federal agencies.

Recommendation number 13 is that “The Victorian government, while maintaining all current drug offences in law, treat the offences of personal use and possession of all illicit substances as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue”.  It goes on: “This approach will ensure that appropriate pathways are in place for the referral of people to health and treatment services in a timely manner when required. Mechanisms to achieve this could include; exploring alternative models for the treatment of these offences such as the Portugal model of reform; removing the discretion involved with current Victorian police diversion processes by codifying them; reviewing all threshold amounts for drug quantities in order to appropriately distinguish between drug traffickers and people who possess illicit substances for personal use only; and conducting education and awareness programs to communicate with the public about the need to treat drug use as a health issue.

Both the Australia21 summit and the Victorian Parliamentary recommendations saw a continuing role for drug law enforcement in dealing with the drug market and the importation and distribution of currently illicit drugs. And both are calling for the removal of criminal sanctions for people who have supplies of these drugs for their personal use. Both groups also recognise that criminal acts carried out by drug users should receive the full weight of the law.

Two hours after the Victorian report was tabled in the Victorian Parliament on Tuesday 27 March, the final report of the Federal Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law enforcement, that in the past three years has been enquiring into crystal methamphetamine (ice) use and management, was tabled in the federal parliament. The remit of that multiparty committee from both  Houses of Parliament had been to examine the criminal activities, practices and methods involved in the importation, manufacture, distribution and use of methamphetamine and its chemical precursors including crystal methamphetamine and its impact on Australian society. The committee had tabled an earlier report in 2017 that, primarily considered law enforcement responses to the crystal methamphetamine problem in Australia. as well as providing information on crystal methamphetamine and its use in Australia and Australian drug strategies.

The purpose of this second and final report was to examine treatment and harm reduction measures that are in place in Australia to assist crystal methamphetamine users, their families and communities. The report also considers the funding of treatment services as part of the National Ice Action Strategy and the decriminalisation of illicit drugs, drawing from a visit by the committee to Portugal.

A key statement in this latest report appears on page 3 which states: “Although many of the issues outlined in this second report are outside the committee’s core law enforcement focus the evidence before the committee reveals a consistent message articulated by alcohol and other drug experts, governments, the National Ice Taskforce and law enforcement agencies that is: a person’s drug use is a health issue and for this reason Australian governments and law enforcement agencies cannot arrest their way out of it”. The report concludes with the committee’s consideration of decriminalisation within the Australian context.

On page 158 of the report, the committee states: “What is clear to the committee is that the current approach in Australia is not working. Methamphetamine abuse can have devastating effects on individuals, their families and communities and has broad social and economic impact. When former law enforcement officers and law enforcement agencies themselves as saying that Australia cannot arrest its way out of the methamphetamine problem that view must be taken seriously. The committee urges Australian governments to implement the recommendations in this and the committee’s first report. Improvements can and must be made to address methamphetamine use in Australia. In the committee’s opinion, this should be done by shifting the focus on methamphetamine from a law enforcement problem to a health issue within an environment where treatment and support are readily available and without stigmatisation. Concerted attention must also be paid to improving the services and support available to indigenous drug users, drug users in regional and remote areas, prisoners and drug users with young children. Achieving this necessitates change as articulated in the committee’s recommendations.”

The world is changing rapidly on drug issues and Australia has been lagging behind in its policies on illicit drugs. Events this week could prove central to a new approach, which needs to be bipartisan and across all federal, state and territory jurisdictions if it is to meet our national needs.

Emeritus Prof Bob Douglas chaired the Australian21 summit meeting, is a Director of Australia21 and was the Founding Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

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