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Drug Law Reform: The issue we should be debating

Recently, Greens leader Richard Di Natale stepped up to the plate and called for bipartisan support for drug law reform. He believes we can start by adopting the Portugal approach which involves treating drug addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal matter.

Calling for bipartisan support for drug law reform among our current political representatives these days would be like asking ISIS to join the Vatican in calling for marriage equality. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

One might have thought it would be on the agenda for this weekend’s ALP National Conference given Bill Shorten’s gallantry in proposing both an RET and the adoption of the Coalition’s appalling boat turn-back policy.

But don’t hold your breath on drug law reform. And as for the Coalition, they would never do it; it’s far too visionary for them.

The Greens leader is one of the convenors of the Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform that includes some 100 State and Commonwealth MPs from all political parties. He made the call while on a self-funded, fact finding exercise meeting with a number of Portuguese policy makers.

Self-funded? Now there’s an original idea.

In 2001, the Portuguese government did something the Abbott government would regard as anathema. After many years of waging its war on drugs, it decided to reverse its strategy entirely: It decriminalised all drugs.

If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she appears before a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.

The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent off without any penalty. A vast majority of the time, there is no penalty.

Fourteen years after decriminalization, Portugal has not been run into the ground by a nation of drug addicts. In fact, by many measures, it’s doing far better than it was before.

So why has this initiative not gained traction here? Why have both major parties ignored it? I suspect the answer has something to do with wedge politics.

Neither side will speak for fear of giving the other an opportunity to create a scare campaign. How pathetic. What failed leadership.

What the Portuguese initiative has proven beyond doubt is that if we, here in Australia, decriminalised all drugs and transferred the savings in law enforcement to education and rehabilitation, we would be no worse off than we are today and, in all probability, sow the seeds of a reduction in drug use among our youth, over time.

The Portuguese model confirms this. Initially they experienced a small increase in usage which quickly evaporated followed by a reduction, which, over the past ten years, has continued.

Not only has drug use declined but there has been a sharp decrease in drug related deaths and a reduction in HIV infections.

Alex Stevens, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Kent thinks the global community should learn from Portugal.

“The main lesson to learn decriminalizing drugs doesn’t necessarily lead to disaster, and it does free up resources for more effective responses to drug-related problems,” he said.

Former NSW director of public prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery QC is one of several prominent Australians who have called for drug law reform along similar lines. Their Australia 21 report of 2012 quoted him as being “strongly in favour of legalising, regulating, controlling and taxing all drugs”.

Former Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop, Howard government health minister Michael Wooldridge as well as Cowdery were part of the University of Sydney think tank recommending reform in 2012.

That report, now three years old, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Yet the benefits from the Portuguese initiative are clearly evident.

It would be hard to find anyone today who thinks the war on drugs has succeeded. The cost in law enforcement, health and lost productivity is a tragedy.

Yet the parliamentary group looking into drug law reform appears to be dragging its heels. It was established in 1993 and appears to have done nothing of significance in over 20 years.

Senator Di Natale wants to change that. On his Facebook page he says, “Criminal penalties for drug use doesn’t deter people from taking drugs, but it does stop people seeking treatment. That’s in no one’s best interest.”

He’s right of course, but I can’t see too much support coming his way from either of the two major parties. Drug law reform will have to come from people power.

You can read the top five things the senator learnt from his trip to Portugal here. Or, better still, try to guess them before looking.

Hint: They are all just basic common sense.


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  1. corvus boreus

    Good article, John Kelly,

    One of the elements of Dr DiNatale’s trip that impressed me most was that he paid for his research expedition out of his own pocket (even Janet Albrechtson had to give him that one).
    Mind you, probably a sensible precaution given the inevitable fun the ‘conservative’ press would have had with a greeny going on a drug-related fact-checking mission to Portugal at tax-payer expense.

  2. John Lord

    I was under the impression that drug use had halved in Portugal.

  3. kerri

    Unlikely the right would support drug reform. Theirs is a very “us” and “them” philopsophy! The more of “them” hopelessly addicted to drugs the more “us” get! More money more social benefits. No point helping “them”! They are just like those lazy dole bludgers who take drugs, drink spirits and sit on the couch playing video games all day and those women who have baby after baby just to claim a single parents pension and don’t get me started on all those blood sucking seniors who should just shrivel up and die.
    A very compassionate government this one!
    Good article John!

  4. keerti

    I wonder just how much anti there would be in Australia to decriminalistion. A few years ago 40% of the population were willing toi say that they had used marijuana. I’d suggest that if 40% say they have, that a lot more would have done. Prohibiting drug use has had the same affect that prohibition had in the usa during the 1920’s, higher crime rates, drug money and by implication tax evasion. Much of the reseach into drug use and addiction does not support the common assumptions .

  5. corvus boreus

    John Lord,
    It can be quite hard to absolutely quantify amounts of drug use, the definition can be flexible (are ethanol and nicotine included? Is caffeine?), and the practices are often rather clandestine.

    Widespread cannabis decriminilisation (THC types, rather than fibre crop variants) is looking increasingly short-term likely, at least in terms of legal exemptions for various medicinal reasons.

  6. Ricardo29

    This should be a no-brainer, government takes control of drug sales, reduces prices to addicts and decriminalises drug possession and use, nasty people no longer have a monopoly and therefore control, police are freed up to pursue real bad people, not chase drug users for possession of pathetic amounts of drugs, the money saved from the “war on drugs” an abject failure anyway, can go to education and treatment programs etc etc etc but where is the political will when, apparently, the mafia can contribute to political parties. Sadly the anti-drug, religious nut fear mongers have persuaded the populace that this us a war that can be won. Good luck to Di Natale and I hope enough from Labor will be persuaded to join him and that this issue finall gets both traction and resolution.

  7. Kaye Lee

    Eliminate the criminals from drug supply. Have a registered list of addicts who are supplied on prescription and who get health checks and counselling to assist them to kick the addiction. That would eliminate overdoses and the cutting of drugs with toxic fillers as well as cutting off the huge amounts of money that drug traffickers make. It would save young people from having to enter prostitution.

    Legalise marijuana, give the CSIRO the monopoly on growing it, and tax it like alcohol and cigarettes. Provide it on the PBS where it has been shown to be efficacious.

  8. corvus boreus

    Ensure that the interpretation and judgement faculties of the politicians enacting legislation are not affected by intoxicants.

  9. Florence nee Fedup

    I suspect those who have close contact with drug users in their families see no role for the law in dealing with the problem.

    I don’t know if removing the problem from law to health, if there would be a decrease. What I am sure of, there will be no rise.

    Probably the question to ask about Portugal isn’t has number user decreased, but whether the effects of drugs on the users so severe. Is the damage caused as great as before. Do people seek help quicker?

    Maybe the drug dealers, especially the bigger ones can be dealt with by law from a different angle. Maybe for running illegal businesses, not paying tax.

  10. Florence nee Fedup

    It has come to my noticed, many older marijuana users don’t like to get their supplies from the big dealers. The don’t like the new powerful drug. They seem to have created a network among themselves where many of them grow and sell their own. Just a thought, if the trade was decriminalised in someway, with control on what enters the market, that alone would be safer for many.

    Has there been any information of why so many have transferred to ICE. Is it cheaper, easier to distribute. Definitely more harmful.

    No, it should be dealt with under health, not the legal system.

  11. Harquebus

    Decriminalizing marijuana at least will destroy the black marketeers business model which, also includes harder drugs and will reduce contacts between them and young impressionable people.

  12. mmc1949

    Tom Feiling in “The Candy Machine” (ISBN 9780141034461) suggests (I paraphrase) that a huge part of the problem in changing from punitive to medical approaches to drug use is that there is so much money (read jobs and profits) involved in the policing and imprisoning industries that there is no incentive to change the model that we’ve got.

  13. stephentardrew

    The Portugal model is certainly worth a try.

    Criminalisation of addicts is a complete failure.

    There is some rehab however the prison environment is a recipe for disaster.

    Prisons are far from drug free yet full of criminal activity and militate against recovery.

    There are biochemical as well as environmental contributors including sexual abuse, family violence etc., so victims are often blamed for circumstances beyond their control.

    These are complex issues more suited to psychologists and psychiatrists not the punitive anger enforcing and humiliating prison system.

  14. Anon E Mouse

    Only problem is that the health budget always seems to be getting cut.
    A change like this would result in people abandoned like happened when they closed mental health facilities and shifted to a community care situation. Community care was never funded and continues to face cuts.
    A mixture of both perhaps because law and order, like defence, never seem to experience cuts.

  15. Harquebus

    Here’s an idea.

    “Though the pot-planters are meeting resistance with the local police in Germany, they are successfully demonstrating a form of protest through the appearance of multitudes of cannabis plants that are popping up all over the town.”

  16. Pingback: Drug Law Reform: The issue we should be debating | THE VIEW FROM MY GARDEN

  17. ImagiNation

    Since time began man (and woman) have come up with a myriad of concoctions to enter an altered state of consciousness. Now is no different but because truthful drug education is not possible from fear of promoting drug use, physical harm and addiction will always be a problem. They tell us ‘don’t do drugs they will kill you’ yet practically no one ever dies in the beginning. Just like cigarette packets with pictures of rotting mouths and feet. Honestly, how many smokers have you met with diseases like on the pack? None of cause. Because it’s worse case scenario, no-one (especially kids) take the warning seriously. Do you honestly think as many people would become addicted to drugs if they knew the symptoms of drug abuse before they started?

  18. Johnathan123

    ImagiNation I agree. The majority become addicts through ignorance. It’s not about drugs being legal or illegal, it’s about education. People will experiment with drugs whatever the law. The longer the truth about drugs and their usage remains hidden, the longer drug use will continue to be a problem.

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