While we all enjoy the Aussie wit unleashed by helicopter ‘misjudgements’ and raw onion eating gaffes, our obsession with gotcha moments often overshadows the good work that politicians do.
Greens leader Richard di Natale decided to take a few weeks off over the winter break and take his family to Portugal for a holiday. While there, he also was investigating Portugal’s approach to drug abuse.
Instead of calling it a study tour and family reunion and claiming expenses, as members from both major parties have been known to do, di Natale paid for his family holiday himself but used part of his time there to learn about the results of a different way of dealing with illicit drug use.
Portugal had a big problem with high heroin use, overdoses and the spread of HIV.
In 2001 they decided to change their approach by treating illicit drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. They redirected the money and resources that had been spent on prosecuting individual drug users towards treatment, rehabilitation and ensuring that social services were provided to people who had a drug addiction.
If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to 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.
Drug trafficking and dealing remains a crime in Portugal but individuals with a drug problem are treated through the health framework rather than through the courts. They felt that having a criminal penalty for individuals who are using drugs didn’t deter them from using that drug, but what it did do was deter them from seeking treatment.
A widely cited study published in 2010 in the British Journal of Criminology found that after decriminalization, Portugal saw a decrease in imprisonment on drug-related charges alongside a surge in visits to health clinics that deal with addiction and disease.
The use of illicit drugs remained largely unchanged but problematic drug use went down remarkably. Drug use amongst young people decreased. Many more people sought treatment. They saw fewer cases of HIV being transmitted, fewer overdose deaths and reduced crime.
Along with instituting a robust public health model for treating hard drug addiction, Portugal also expanded the welfare system in the form of a guaranteed minimum income. Changes in the material and health resources for at-risk populations for the past decade are a major factor in evaluating the evolution of Portugal’s drug situation.
While Australia’s situation may be somewhat different to that of Portugal, according to the United Nations 2014 World Drug Report, Australians are the biggest recreational drug users in the world.
We ranked second for use of opioids (pain medications such as codeine or morphine), third for methamphetamines, fourth for cocaine and seventh for cannabis.
The report states the number of Australian drug users continues to rise.
“In Australia, expert opinion points to an increase in the consumption of cannabis, cocaine, hallucinogens, and solvents and inhalants,” the report reads.
More than 10 per cent of people aged between 16 and 65 use cannabis, and 2.1 per cent use cocaine.
According to a survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 2.1 per cent of Australians say they used methamphetamine or amphetamine drugs including ice, speed, base and prescription amphetamines in the past year.
Overall use of methamphetamines has actually fallen from a peak of 3.7 per cent of the population in 1998.
But the proportion of users taking the more potent ice has increased dramatically in recent years.
In 2013, 50.4 per cent of users said the main form of the drug they used was ice, up from 22 per cent in 2010.
Meanwhile the proportion using “speed” had fallen from around 51 per cent to 29 per cent.
Misuse of prescription drugs is a big problem. Around 4.7 per cent of the population misuse pharmaceutical drugs, most of those – around 3.3 per cent – misuse pain killers.
According to the ABS, the number of prisoners in adult corrective services custody increased by 10% over the past 12 months to reach a ten year high of 33,791.
The national imprisonment rate also climbed to a ten year high of 185.6 prisoners per 100,000 adult population.
12% of male prisoners and 17% of female prisoners are in custody for illicit drug offences.
In 2009 the Australian Crime Commission released a report that organised crime is conservatively estimated to cost Australia $10 billion a year. Illicit drugs are responsible for at least half of Australian criminal activity. When you add to this illicit drug trade the money-laundering and fraud that go with it, the combined figure makes up at least 75 per cent of all organised crime.
The main illicit drugs from which organised crime derives its huge profits include amphetamines, ecstasy, cannabis, cocaine, heroin and ice (methamphetamines).
In Australia, outlaw bikie gangs are heavily involved in illicit drugs in the main capital cities, which is why we see so much violence among them as they fight their turf wars. The Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated that, in 2004 alone, money-laundering in Australia involved between $2,800 million and $6,300 million from crime proceeds.
It seems obvious that our current approach is not working. We are spending billions on a losing battle, incarcerating victims while a burgeoning market provides an endless supply of funds to criminals. Much of our gun crime is also related to the drug industry.
I applaud Mr di Natale for investigating alternatives and for the integrity he showed in choosing to pay for his trip himself.