This article is part of Weed Week: an examination of marijuana's persistent status as an illegal drug in the lead up to 4/20.
I was a doctor before I was lucky enough to be elected to the Australian Senate. For years I treated people battling against drug and alcohol addiction. I treated heroin addicts in rural Victoria, and chronic alcoholics in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. I saw ordinary people, no different from you or me, caught up in a struggle that so few won and for which too many paid with their lives.
But no matter where in this country I worked as a drug and alcohol clinician there was a single fact that stuck with me the most: not only was our approach not working, it was actively harming the people it was supposed to help.
Somewhere along the way, society decided drug users had morally failed and should be treated like criminals. Politicians who had themselves indulged in their youth passed hypocritical laws that lumped smoking a joint into the same category as importing ice. And even when faced with overwhelming evidence that our approach was hopelessly flawed—that it was harming those seeking our help and enriching a new global caste of narco-gangsters—we stood firm in the name of law and order.
How many shattered lives is enough? How many communities have to be broken before we admit what has been staring us in the face all along: that this is a health problem, not a criminal one. What we need is the political will to do what we know is right.
This weekend, after a year-long review process, the Greens voted to abandon our policy of blanket opposition to the legalisation of currently illegal drugs, and replaced it with a principle that the legal approach to drugs and other substances should be informed by evidence about their harms. We did not reach this decision lightly. But our review showed to us what I and so many others have long known in our hearts, that the law and order approach has completely failed to reduce either drug use or the harms associated with it.
I have no doubt that we will be attacked for our decision. They'll say we want to give smack to grade schoolers and want a joint in every Christmas stocking; I wouldn't even be surprised to see myself again photoshopped on the front of the Murdoch papers with a crack pipe in my hand. Try explaining what a crack pipe is to your Italian grandmother. Actually, try explaining what photoshop is.
But you know what? I'll ask that proponents of our draconian drugs policy explain why young people across our country have to die every year from avoidable overdoses.
Most young people think that one pill couldn't possibly hurt. Tragically, too many of them are wrong. The majority of recreational drug users are healthy young people in their teens and early 20s. Risk taking is a part of growing up. If they take pills, it's most likely to be a few times a year for a few years, maybe with friends at a party or a festival. These young people aren't stupid, they wouldn't knowingly consume a drug they thought might kill them. But they have faith that most of the time this doesn't happen, and mostly they are right.
For most people life then moves on. Their priorities change and they make different choices. Our challenge is to understand what motivates their choices and to work to ensure that, as a society, we manage harms. We should be wise enough to know that our best efforts should be aimed at keeping young people safer during this period of their lives by giving them the tools to make informed choices.
That's why I'll be supporting the efforts of some advocates who will be pushing for the availability of drug testing kits this summer.
Drug testing kits are part of a harm reduction approach that includes getting rid of drug sniffer dogs. Do policy makers really think young people are just going to chuck their pills when they see dogs at the gates of a festival? Of course not. The data shows that they are much more likely to take their drugs all at once and roll the dice when it comes to the potential health impacts. Most young people tend to think they are invincible.
I hope that the Greens' decision sparks a national debate that sees our approach to drugs transformed into one that mitigates harm instead of blindly punishing whole swathes of our community. But no matter how soon we come to our senses, it will not be soon enough for the young Australians we have lost or the shattered families they have left behind. They will never get a chance to outgrow their wild years. Their parents will never see them have children of their own. As a father and a doctor I find the senseless loss of his life and tens of thousands of others across the globe almost too much to stand.
Let's hope that we won't have to stand it much longer.
Senator Richard Di Natale is the leader of the Australian Greens and a former drug and alcohol addiction specialist