Drugs

The Next Six Months Could Completely Change Australian Drug Law

Sniffer dogs: banned. Pill testing: legalised.
March 29, 2018, 7:37am

This week, after 18 months of investigations, hearings, and research, the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform was released. It’s a massive report—604 pages, 50 recommendations—from banning sniffer dogs to investigating the legalisation of “adult use” of cannabis. Basically, it’s a wish list. Everything harm reduction advocates have been asking for the past few years.

The Andrews Government has six months to respond to the report, which means the next six months could be some of the most important in Australia drug law history.

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There is a chance none of the recommendations could be taken up. Victoria is in an election year, and wedging Premier Daniel Andrews for being “soft on crime” has become one of the Liberal opposition’s favourite past times.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the government tries to do as little as possible and, if re-elected, then revisits this area,” veteran drug reform advocate Dr Alex Wodak told VICE. “There’s a growing view around the world about the sort of steps that are needed. But threading these through the political maze isn’t easy, especially in the highly adversarial political atmosphere we have in Australia now.”

On the other hand, the Andrews Government could adopt everything in the report—completely transforming the way Victoria, and in turn Australia, treats, polices, and thinks about drugs.

What Could Change Here

Any one of the 50 recommendations in this report could have a big effect. Take recommendation 46, which asks "the Victorian Government make naloxone available to prisoners with a history of opioid use upon their release from prison."

Naloxone is a medicine that temporarily blocks the brain's opioid receptors and can stop a heroin overdose in its tracks. In the US, it's one of the few things working in the fight against that country's opioid crisis, which was linked to more than 40,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016.

As the inquiry notes, there's a "high risk of overdose deaths among" ex-prisoners who've struggled with opioid use in the past. Arming these people with naloxone takes that lifesaving drug into communities where paramedics might never be called.

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Together, recommendations 49 and 50 could have a massive impact on music festivals. They ask the Andrews Government to think about running a pill testing trial in the state, and to weigh up whether sniffer dogs work. There's a growing body of evidence that drug detection dogs, as they are officially known, are wrong about whether someone is carrying drugs more often than they're right.

As Dr Peta Malins from RMIT told the inquiry, her research has shown drug dogs don't stop people doing drugs. Instead, most people she spoke to said they'd take much bigger risks to avoid detection, "preloading" drugs before they left home or downing everything they've got if they see dogs at the gates.

"Buying drugs inside is similarly problematic," Dr Malins added, "because of the ways in which people’s quality control goes down when they are buying from people that they do not know rather than somebody that they might have already purchased drugs from before."

What Needs to Change

"At the moment the war on drugs is a war on our young people," says Fiona Patten, who was a member of the parliamentary committee who put the report together. "A third of people under 30 admit to using illicit substances, and I don’t believe that this figure is going to change. We keep saying that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, yet year on year the amount of drug arrests increases."

The figures back this up. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of people behind bars in Australia jumped by more than 11,000. Over the same time, illicit drug offences went from the fourth most common offence to the second—making up nearly 15 percent of prisoners.

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Police are clearly still targeting users rather than dealers, Patten said, pointing to the fact that "in 2015, less than seven percent of drug arrests in Victoria were providers." Dr Wodak agreed, saying recommendation 13 (consider reducing or eliminating sanctions for personal possession of drugs) and 23 (consider regulating and taxing recreational cannabis) are the most pressing in the report.

He also says Victoria needs for better access to opioid substitution therapy (OST). This treatment, which includes things like the methadone program, is the most effective way to ease people off heroin and other opioids. Right now, Australia's methadone program is tough to get on, expensive to stay on, and easy to get kicked off.

If Australia wants to avoid an opioid crisis like the one currently ripping across the US, the inquiry says urgent action is needed.

The Ice Problem

The central thing this report is calling for is that Australia "reorient" from a drug policy centred on law enforcement, to one that sees drugs as a health issue. But there's a problem with this, and it comes back to Australia's national drug: methamphetamine.

On a per capita basis, Australians use ice more than any other country in the world. And reading statements given to the inquiry—by everyone from the Australian Federal Police to Victoria Police—it's clear meth is still law enforcement's number one focus when it comes to drugs in Australia.

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"I think one of the things we have seen is the harm from ice is quite significant," VicPol assistant commissioner Rick Nugent told the inquiry. "When I am out in the region and visiting stations… I will ask the question, 'So of all the jobs you attend, what percentage in your view is drug-related or in what percentage are drugs the driver of this?' and commonly it is 70 per cent of what we come across—so seven out of 10 that we come across have got an ice pipe."

Beyond expanding access to treatment, harm reduction when it comes to meth is tricky. Some in the drug reform community, including Dr Wodak and Noffs Foundation CEO Matt Noffs, have called for ice smoking rooms in the past. European cities like Bern in Switzerland and Frankfurt, Germany, already have these drug inhalation rooms, which run alongside medically supervised injecting centres.

Even among people who support broad drug decriminalisation though, or even legalisation, ice is often seen as a no-go zone. But for those who've been pushing changes in Australian drug law for years, not doing anything is more dangerous than what's on the table right now.

"Ice gets a lot of attention as the latest newish drug. But we never ask why the Australian drug market suddenly started making ice available," Dr Wodak said. "The more and the longer we press down on the drug market, the more dangerous the drugs in the drug market become… Within a decade of opium smoking being banned in some Asian countries, it had disappeared only to be replaced by heroin."

Fiona Patten agreed. "If there's no change then we will need to build more prisons than schools," she said. "Our overdose deaths will far outnumber our road toll and the new drugs that will emerge will be far more dangerous."

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