In a senate chamber, deep within Parliament House in Canberra, academics and politicians were debating a problem that's rarely up for an honest discussion in Australia: the fact we're arresting, charging, and imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders at all-time high levels. Predictably these people are disproportionately young, male, and black. So what if we just stopped? Stopped arresting people for personal drug use. Stopped dropping them into the cycle of abuse and crime that a criminal record so often creates. What if Australia decriminalised drugs?
This is what Greens leader Dr Richard Di Natale was pushing for by holding a National Drug Summit. In today's political climate—with doctors advocating pill testing at music festivals being threatened with manslaughter—it's a proposition that seems unfathomable. But Di Natale is resolute, and with crossbench support from Nationals deputy leader Fiona Nash, Liberal MP Sharman Stone, and shadow health minister Stephen Jones, he could just pull it off.
It's an idea with precedent. From Di Natale's proposition, you can draw a straight line back 15 years and across the globe to Portugal. In the early 2000s, the European nation faced a huge heroin problem: one percent of its population, some 100,000 people, were addicted to the powerful opiate. The country had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the entire EU. So the government decided to take a step that was then seen as extreme, and it decriminalised all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, even heroin.
The years that followed saw no explosion in drug use. Official estimates actually suggest only around 0.5 percent of 15 to 65-year-olds in Portugal use cannabis on a daily basis. But what's been particularly significant is the fall in drug deaths. It's impressive enough to warrant showing you a chart.
Of course, Portugal didn't just open up a drug free for all. The country completely shifted the way it approached drug use, and started thinking about addiction as a health issue. A national minimum income was installed to target the link between poverty and drug abuse, and access to drug treatment was also massively scaled up. Active efforts to reduce the stigma around drug addiction were implemented as well.
Today, Australians are some of the biggest drug users in the world. Cannabis, ice, cocaine—we consume them at higher levels than almost any other country. Yet there's this lingering idea that drug use is a "fringe" activity, and this misconception remains a barrier for people who may need help. "Stigma is killing people, it's probably the number one killer of people who inject," drug user advocate Annie Madden told VICE. "We're your family, we're your friends, we're not just collateral damage in the war on drugs."
If Australia did decriminalise drugs, here's what it might look like: The Greens are pushing for the personal use of all drugs to cease being a criminal offence. Instead, the money being spent on prosecutions and incarceration would be redirected into treatment and education. Currently, it costs over $100,000 a year to keep someone in jail in Australia. Even live in drug treatment would be cheaper.
But decriminalisation isn't legalisation. Under the Greens' plan, drugs would remain illegal, another idea lifted from the Portugal model. However, the essential shift is one away from policing users—in Portugal, the trafficking of drugs can still get you up to 12 years in prison. Portuguese nationals caught with drugs still also have to face the Comissões para a Dissuasão da Toxicodependência, or the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction: a panel comprised of a doctor, a lawyer, and a social worker who decide on the best course of treatment.
Up two flight of stairs off a side street in Redfern, Sydney, Odyssey House treats more than 600 people a year for addiction. The centre's CEO, James Pitts, is an imposingly tall American, who got his start in drug treatment in Detroit 38 years ago. Pitts explains that while he welcomes drug reform, he does have reservations.
Today, Pitts says, mental health and drug use are so closely intertwined that you are never just treating the addiction. In many ways, decriminalisation would be great—addicts often can't find work, housing, or travel because of their criminal records. But he believes if reform doesn't also combat the underlying drivers of drug abuse, it won't have any long term impact.
Research backs up Pitts' experience. Dr Caitlin Hughes of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Council (NDARC) said that to be effective any intervention needs to be as broad as possible, taking into account the most harmful drugs—alcohol and cigarettes. "There is no silver bullet that can be used to solve the drug problem," she said. "History has shown there is no way to completely stop drug use and drug markets."
Funding treatment, Dr Hughes said, was the most effective investment that could be made in drug policy. Harm minimisation, such as pill testing and naloxone, came in second, followed by prevention like scare them straight TV ads. The least effective tactic was supply reduction and law enforcement. As shadow health minister Stephen Jones noted, "These measures might be filling our jails but they are doing very little to reduce supply, or the harm it causes."
Will Tregoning is the director of drug harm reduction campaigning at Unharm and a major advocate for decriminalisation. He argues that it's just the first step though in reforming Australia's drug policy, one that will allow drug users to be a part of the conversation.
"One side says we need to treat drug use as a criminal issue and other one says we need to treat it as a health and social issue. In both cases I often wonder who 'we' is," Tregoning said. "It always seems to be a we that excludes illicit drug users. The reality is that of people under 40, a majority have used illicit drugs at some point in their life. People like me."
Tregoning's focus at the moment is music festivals: introducing pill testing and banning sniffer dogs. "The drug detection dog program has to end, it's been a farce from the start," he says. "It mostly detects people with a small amount of cannabis… the program has never caught a major drug dealer."
Instead of reducing drug use at festivals, Tregoning says, sniffer dogs push people into really risky behaviours—preloading before they arrive, panic overdosing in line. Every time there is a major music festival, young people turn up in emergency rooms having swallowed or shelved a bag of drugs. This is a direct impact of the criminalisation of drugs—in trying to sneak past drug dogs many they have had bags full of drugs burst inside them. "That is ridiculous," Tregoning says. "It's so harmful."
All of the reasons why we should rethink how we police music festivals, they hold for drug law reform more broadly. In reality, people are going to take drugs, no matter what. The choice lies in how we choose to deal with it. But resistance to drug reform remains strong within Australia politics, despite the growing body of evidence.
Just last year, Nationals senators Matt Canavan and John "Wacka" Williams brought forward a motion in the Australian Senate. It called for the Upper House to condemn people "who downplay the dangers of 'ice' by calling for the legalisation of a hazardous and toxic substance that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives, and families." Greens health spokesperson Colleen Hartland told VICE her party will continue to build public support for decriminalisation throughout this election year, but admitted there is a long road ahead.
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