Twelve days ago, two people died from suspected drug overdoses at Sydney’s Defqon.1 music festival. You know this already, because the incident sparked a national shouting match over the pros and cons of Australia’s hardline drug policy. A lot of those voices have been the usual barking dogs: pill-testing advocates versus conservative policy makers and the NSW premier. Recently, though, an unlikely activist has waded into the fray.
Former Australian Federal Police commissioner and barrister Mick Palmer spent more than three decades at the coalface of Australia’s war on drugs. During his tenure he’s seen the arrest of both large scale traffickers and small scale users. He’s seen the “Just say no” prevention campaign become a cudgel with which the government beats young people over the head. And he’s represented many of those same young people who took drugs anyway and faced severe legal discipline as a result.
More recently, Mick has become an outspoken advocate of a decriminalised Australian drug culture: one that doesn’t stigmatise recreational users but aims to educate and insulate them against potential harm. In the wake of recent events, VICE sat down with him to get his view on the current climate—and what needs to be done to fix it.
VICE: Drug use is obviously a field that you’ve been quite vocal in. What is your personal relationship to drugs?
Palmer: Well for 33 years I was the police commissioner at two different police organisations, and during my operational police career I saw things that made me really question whether or not the way we dealt with illicit drugs was the right way to go. I convinced myself that it didn’t make any sense: as far as harm minimisation in Australia goes we haven’t minimised any of the harms that I can see. The supply and demand marketplace is as big as ever, the price of drugs like heroin and cocaine continues to go down, and we certainly haven’t deterred anyone from taking drugs. We’ve failed on all fronts. I came to believe quite a number of years ago that there’s got to be a better way.
How do you feel about the current drug culture in Australia?
I don’t think we’ve got an out-of-control drug culture in this country, but we’ve got a culture where drugs are very easily obtainable—and most young people only use them recreationally for a good night out, much like alcohol in my youth. When addiction occurs I think almost all of them have some underlying problem where the drug addiction is really the symptom of a deeper cause—whether it’s mental illness, family dysfunction, homelessness, etc.
What’s your stance on recreational drug use?
We all take risks as young people, and I think the first thing we should do is stop criminalising young people for using drugs. I’d move to take away the criminality and treat it solely as a health and safety issue. If we have a zero tolerance, our zero tolerance ought to be to the needless loss of a young life. And that’s what our whole focus ought to be on: creating the safest possible environment.
So do you think we need to be more forgiving towards recreational users and not treat drug use as seriously as we do?
Yes. I think we should just decriminalise it. If people commit offences while they’re on the drug, you punish the criminal behaviour by all means. But for use and possession we should be looking at it purely from a health and safety aspect, and educate people that if you’re determined to do it for god’s sake find a way to test what you’re going to take before you take it.
If you could test these substances and find that there wasn’t anything harmful there, would you then say that it’s okay for people to take those drugs?
I wouldn’t say that. I’d say that no drug’s a good drug—but the reality is that of course people are going to take them. We all look for new ways to have a good time: that’s the nature of life, and we shouldn’t treat that as a criminal action. But we still need to have the education.
Even if you had pill-testing at every festival around the country we can’t say that we wouldn’t have any deaths. Of course we still could. You can’t take the danger out of it, just like you can’t take the danger out of prescription medicine. So I wouldn’t say it’s okay to do it, but I would say it makes a lot of sense to deal with it as a health and safety issue.
What kind of a drug culture would you like to see in Australia?
I’d like to see a mature one where very few people take drugs, and those that do take it very sensibly for recreational or medicinal use only. I’d like to see us move towards a regulated marketplace where people don’t buy drugs from unlawful markets, but buy it from a pharmacy or regulated outlet where you can buy the drugs in confidence that what you’re getting is fine and you know the toxicity. Deal with it in a similar way to how we’ve dealt with cigarettes. We’ve managed to reduce the people using cigarettes in Australia enormously, just through certain steps, and cigarettes is now a very well regulated industry with lots less people smoking than used to.
You’re not going to stop this by prohibiting it, but you may reduce it significantly by regulating it and taking control. This isn’t a controlled environment at the moment. We need to put the controls into it to ensure the most amount of health and safety for anyone who decides to use drugs.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.