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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