The Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Association ACT (ATODA) has welcomed Michael Pettersson MLA’s proposed bill to decriminalise possession of hard drugs.
Mr Pettersson will introduce a bill in February to make possession of limited amounts of hard drugs a civil offence, not a criminal one. Instead of facing a possible two-year prison sentence, offenders would have their drugs confiscated, be made to pay a fine, and be referred to rehab.
ATODA CEO Dr Devin Bowles said his organisation, the sector’s peak body, strongly supported Mr Pettersson’s proposed bill, and would continue to study the details
“This sort of law reform is exactly what Canberra needs,” Dr Bowles said. “The war on drugs has been a failure in Australia and globally. We certainly want to discourage the use of illicit drugs, but there are few better examples of policy failure than a law-and-order approach to drugs to reduce their use. We need to view problematic drugs as a major health issue, and enable people to receive treatment.”
More than two in five Australians have used a drug illicitly, Dr Bowles said. “It’s an absolute travesty that people face prison for possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use, as a criminal record can severely limit a person’s chances in life.”
He said 24 countries around the world have already decriminalised or legalised drugs.
Portugal, for instance, had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS in the European Union, and an increasing rate of drug overdose deaths, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (US). After decriminalising drugs in 2000 and adopting a health-focused approach, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (UK) noted in 2014, Portugal’s levels of drug use fell below the European average, drug use among young people declined, and crime rates fell.
Other European countries have followed suit, including Switzerland, while the American state of Oregon recently voted to decriminalise all hard drugs.
“Evidence is that shifting from a law-and-order approach to a health-focused approach to drugs is really useful, and does not increase harm from drug use,” Dr Bowles said.
The ACT’s cannabis laws, for instance, had seen a substantial increase in the number of people willing to come forward to seek treatment, he said.
There has been some concern on social media that decriminalising possession could encourage the use of hard drugs. Dr Bowles disagrees.
“Some people have said we should have an incremental approach to drug decriminalisation, potentially decriminalising other drugs before ice or heroin,” he said. “If we view illicit drugs as a health issue, however, why wouldn’t we focus on drugs with the greatest health risks? The whole point is to shift society’s resources into allowing people with substance use issues to seek treatment without fear of arrest.”
Dr Bowles would also like to see illegal use of prescription drugs decriminalised.
Benefits for the justice system?
Treating drug possession as a crime costs the taxpayer to little effect, both Mr Pettersson and Dr Bowles argue.
“There’s great expense in proceeding through the criminal justice system to any degree,” Mr Pettersson said. “Appearing before a judge, needing lawyers, theoretically going to prison and spending time incarcerated comes with a tremendous cost to society. Allowing police at the point of contact to divert people away from that and to health providers is a good way to save money in the criminal justice system.”
Treatment, on the other hand, is cost-effective, Dr Bowles said: “For every dollar spent on treatment, society gains seven.”
He said focusing police resources away from possessing small amounts of drugs would allow them to focus on violent criminals, and allow more money to fund specialist alcohol and drug treatment services. In Australia, demand for those services was double the available supply, while there were long waiting-lists for Canberrans seeking help.
Mr Pettersson agreed that resources dedicated to those services were insufficient. “This is not a standalone proposal,” he said. “This legislative change would require a commitment to spend money on these support services at the same time.”
According to Dr Bowles, the war on drugs is not working. Although the use of hallucinogens has fallen in the ACT, the Territory saw the greatest percentage increase in the number and weight of cannabis seized, the greatest percentage increase in the weight of cocaine seized, and the greatest percentage increase in the number of other opioid seizures in 2018–19, according to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s Illicit Drug Data Report 2018–19.
“While increased drug seizures are due in part to the diligent efforts of police, we know that the work of the police has been skilled and focused in this area for some time. We have no reason to think that the police one year are better or more efficient than the police the previous year. Instead, what growing seizures show is that there is more to seize,” Dr Bowles said.