PAUL BARRATT. Growing momentum for drug law reform. Part 1 of 3.

May 29, 2017

The war on drugs has failed.

There was a buzz across Australia in March 2017, when former premiers, police chiefs, prison officers and lawyers stood side-by-side with drug users and their families, to throw down the gauntlet on drug law reform. They called for an end to criminal penalties for personal use and possession and a new focus on addressing the health and social issues associated with drug-taking.  

Australia21’s groundbreaking report ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’ was launched by former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett and former NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr on 20 March 2017, causing a flood of interest.

It was a powerful sign that Australians are losing their stomach for the failed War on Drugs and instead want an end to avoidable deaths and criminal convictions that ruin lives and often push people towards harder drug use.

Leading the charge was Mick Palmer, who was the Australian Federal Police Commissioner from 1994 to 2001 and the Northern Territory Police Commissioner from 1998 to 1994.

Speaking at the launch, Mr Palmer said:

“I didn’t have time for people who used drugs. I realised the futility of the practice.

Since I retired, I have devoted a fair bit of time to work more closely with the drug user coalface and it has become obvious we can’t arrest our way out of it. Law enforcement can’t solve what is a serious issue and we need a more multi-faceted approach to deal with the problem.

What we now have is badly broken, ineffective and even counterproductive to the harm minimisation aims of Australia’s national illicit drugs policy.”

Launching “Can Australia Respond to Drugs More Effectively and Safely?”, Jeff Kennett, who is the founder of BeyondBlue, said a review of Australia’s drug policies was well overdue. For Mr Kennett, “[t]he issue of deaths and wasted lives should always be a top priority for any we elect to govern our affairs. Yet in this area of drugs, I don’t think it gets that priority.”

He pointed out there had been no ‘seminal advance’ in 40 to 50 years with the exception of Sydney’s safe injecting facility, which the report suggested should be replicated elsewhere in Australia.

Mr Kennett said the report had “shone a light on a problem we all know exists and has existed for a long period of time and anecdotally, it seems to be getting worse.” He went on to ask,

“Where are the legislators today with the courage to try something different that might, in some way, bring about a change of direction in this particular area of pursuit?

I’ve got to say to you I can’t see them anywhere at the moment. While I accept there is no magic wand, this is an issue that requires the most creative advocacy of all, because for so many who have no issue and no relationship with those who might be victims of the class that we are talking about, they will always probably accept the practices of the past; what they’ve grown up with.

But those practices are not relevant today in dealing with the scourge that is increasingly not only affecting society, it is affecting our first responders and it is affecting a whole group of the community.”

Bob Carr, who also served as Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said everyone was entitled to have a say on the issue, especially the families affected and the organisations that saved lives:

“Premiers’ offices should be moving with mainstream opinion and saying, ‘Yes, a medically supervised injecting room should be given a broader mandate and there should be consultation with parents about the prospect of testing pills at music events.”

Mr Carr said parents would probably prefer pill testing to the ‘lottery’ they have at the moment where “at least there’s a chance of testing the damned and quite possibly dirty thing.” His plea as he helped launch the report was “Let’s not be dogmatic, let’s be open minded.”

The Australia21 report calls for an approach that distinguishes between high-end production and trafficking on the one hand, and personal use and possession on the other.

It does not recommend open-slather legalisation of all drugs; instead, it supports incremental, robustly evaluated steps towards a national policy of decriminalisation, standardising the discretionary approach to personal use and possession of cannabis and other substances that is already being adopted by frontline law enforcers at the state and territory level.

Advertising of any legalised and regulated drugs would not be permitted and some harder substances would require stringent controls, such as prescription by a doctor.

Mick Palmer understands but rejects concerns that if some drugs were legalised, people would consume more –

“People are dying at rock festivals and using drugs at a high level under our current arrangements. Young people love forbidden fruit. If some drugs are legalised, there’s not much evidence of an increase in usage occurring anywhere. We need a better policy for those who need better protection, like those at rock festivals.

Support those like addicts, who have serious health problems, and arrest and punish only those who need to be arrested — and that includes serious criminal behaviour. For those who are feeding a habit or a psychotic episode, we are not excusing that, but we need to deal with it separately from the drug use.”

Paul Barratt AO is the Chair of Australia21, an independent, not-for-profit think tank. Paul is former Secretary of the Federal Departments of Primary Industries and Energy, and Defence; and former Executive Director of the Business Council of Australia.  

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