Here's What Happened at Today's ​National Drug Summit

For the first time since 1987 serious drug policy reform was up for discussion at Parliament House.
02 March 2016, 12:00am

Decriminalising illicit drugs was on the table today as politicians and drug experts met in Canberra for the first National Drug Summit since 1987. Greens leader Richard Di Natale is leading the push, and spoke today about the need to stop thinking of drugs as a legal problem and start approaching them as a health issue.

Under the model the Greens are proposing drugs would remain "illicit"; however, police wouldn't target personal users. Police focus would be shifted to "the organised criminal supply marketplace where the benefits of police interventions will be highest." The party is also calling for increased funding of treatment, as well as the introduction of drug checking services at public events, and banning sniffer dogs. At this stage they are not advocating for full legalisation.

There was broad bipartisan support in the room for what Di Natale was suggesting. National Party deputy leader Fiona Nash told the summit, "This is an acknowledgement that we can't arrest our way out of the problem... If we want to smash the drug dealer's model, we have to attack demand."

Shadow minister for health Stephen Jones also spoke, highlighting that Australia spends 60 percent of its $1.7 billion "illicit drugs budget" on law enforcement, that's $1 billion. By comparison, treatment—which research has found is the most effective tactic—receives only 22 percent and harm reduction (e.g. pill testing, needle exchange) gets just 2.2 percent.

However, as Liberal Party member Sharman Stone noted in her address, "We tend to speak to the converted at these events."

Elsewhere, Di Natale's push for decriminalisation has been met with condemnation and scorn, both from politicians and the media. The day after he suggested decriminalisation would also cover hard drugs, such as ice, the Courier Mail ran a front page story entitled "Ice, Ice Crazy." It featured Di Natale and his Labor ally Melissa Parke holding a photoshopped crack pipe.

"The first thing that came to my mind was how do I explain to my mum what an ice pipe is, and what Photoshop is?" Di Natale told the summit. "Then the other thing was, I thought we were beyond this."

Indeed, decriminalisation isn't really a fringe idea anymore. Already more than 25 countries have introduced it, including Portugal, which has seen a huge drop in drug deaths since its laws changed 14 years ago. MP Stone even mentioned Iran, whose representative this morning on the Council of Foreign Affairs announced the country was considering eliminating the death penalty for drug offences. It's a start.

Australians are some of the biggest MDMA, cannabis, and methamphetamine users in the world. Illicit drug offences have been rising since 2008 and the number of people actually brought to court on drug offences is at its highest levels in five years.

"These measures might be filling our jails but they are doing very little to reduce supply, or the harm it causes," MP Jones said.

"There is a growing appetite in this country for a different conversation," senator Di Natale said. "It's happening around the world."

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