Should we change the way we police drug use? That was the question at the heart of the final event of the 2018 Canberra Drug Policy Series.
The event, ‘What happened when Portugal decriminalised drugs? Lessons for Canberra 17 years on’, brought together representatives to discuss drug policy in the ACT.
The guest panellist, Dr Nuno Capaz from Lisbon, Portugal, discussed how decriminalising illicit drug use in Portugal has affected the country, and whether elements of the policy could be applied here in Canberra. Cannabis was decriminalised in the ACT in 1992.
Dr Capaz, the Vice-President of the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Dependence in Lisbon, discussed Portugal’s ‘heroin crisis’ that caused the country to rethink their drug policy in 2001.
Portugal now operates on a “healthcare first” approach; people caught with illicit substances are not charged with a criminal offence, though the use and possession of illicit substances is still illegal. They may be issued a warning or a fine, or required to appear in front of the Dissuasion Commission to be referred on to other support services.
Dr Capaz said the idea is to avoid giving a criminal record to people who use illicit drugs, whilst creating a structure to support those living with addiction.
“What we do in Portugal is common sense,” he said, though he warned that the ‘Portuguese Model’ can’t be “copied” anywhere else in the world.
He stressed the importance of a network, with law enforcement, healthcare and government working together to reduce the harm from drug use.
“It’s the wholesale approach that allows us [Portugal] to get these good results.”
The event comes as the ACT Government prepares to release the ACT Drug Strategy Action Plan 2018-2021. The draft plan, released for public consultation in July, includes plans for needle and syringe exchange programs (including at the Alexander Maconochie Centre), supervised injecting rooms and the exploration of further opportunities for pill testing. The strategy does not consider decriminalisation.
Acting Minister for Health and Wellbeing Rachel Stephen-Smith said in a statement the ACT Government has no plans to decriminalise other illicit drugs, and the Government’s focus is on the three pillars of demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction.
“Our Drug Strategy Action Plan, which is due for release later this year, will focus on building safe, healthy and resilient communities through preventing and minimising alcohol, tobacco and other drug-related health, social and economic harms among individuals, families and communities. It is aligned to the National Drug Strategy 2017-2026, which all states and territories have agreed to and helped shape.”
ACT Greens Leader and spokesperson for Drug Law Reform Shane Rattenbury did not respond toa request for a comment, however the ACT Greens’Community First plan for Canberra states the ACT Greens believe that “imprisonment for the personal use of illicit drugs is not appropriate”, and states a goal of “civil rather than criminal sanctions in situations where personal drug use or possession is the sole criminal charge”.