Attempts to control drug use through the criminal justice system have clearly failed. Instead of reducing harm, current laws have negative health and social impacts on individuals, our communities and the nation as a whole. Criminal convictions often have adverse life-changing consequences, while failing to prevent hospitalisations and premature deaths. Drug law reforms urgently need to be introduced by all Australian Governments and greater resourcing should be allocated to treatment and rehabilitation.
The goals of drug law reforms should be: reducing deaths, disease, crime and corruption; improving the protection of human rights of all Australian citizens (especially young people); and reducing the burden on the criminal justice system, taxpayers and families.
From Australia21’s 2017 report Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’
- The overriding objective of Australia’s national policy on drugs should be the minimisation of harm to users and those around them.
- The policy should include substantially reducing the size of (or eliminating) the criminal supply, by incrementally moving psychoactive drugs from the black market.
- More proportionate funding should be directed into harm minimisation and away from ineffective drug law enforcement.
- It should be recognised that criminal and antisocial behaviour resulting from drug use is largely a result of the high costs of maintaining a drug habit and only in some cases the specific effect of the drug.
- Users should be able to submit drugs for testing in a controlled environment to prevent avoidable deaths and overdoses.
- Current practices to test drivers for the presence of psychoactive substances should be to ascertain whether the driver is unsafe or unfit to drive, especially as new laws governing use of medicinal cannabis come into effect.
- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that include arrest rates for use and possession of psychoactive substances should be considered only partial measures of ‘success’, unless they also include harm reduction measures.
- Savings made from cutting back unproductive law enforcement activities should be re-allocated within law enforcement to areas of greater benefit to the community.
- Opioid Substitution Treatment (OST), including methadone and buprenorphine, should be available for all heroin-dependent prisoners, sentenced and remanded, and should continue to be available following release at reduced cost.
- The potential for an expanded OST service to substantially reduce the Australian prison population and associated costs should be explored by state and federal taskforces and warrants serious attention by the Australian Productivity Commission and the Australian Law Reform Commission.
- In view of the long and successful operation of the medically supervised injecting centre in Sydney, serious consideration should be given to the establishment of controlled drug consumption rooms in other parts of Australia.
- Australian authorities should review the effectiveness of the 2013 New Zealand Psychoactive Substances Act.
- Two pilot projects to trial and evaluate the health and social programs recommended in this report should be conducted — one in a remote disadvantaged community and another in an urban community with substantial social and drug related problems.
IN NOVEMBER 2018, Australia21 launched a report exposing the health and social harms from current drug laws, called We All Pay The Price: Our drug laws are tearing apart Australia’s social fabric as well as harming drug users and their families.
The report explores the complex two-way interactions between the punitive approach to drug use and problems including poverty, social disadvantage, unemployment, homelessness, family violence, child protection interventions, mental illness, stigma, discrimination and suicide.
We All Pay the Price is the product of an unprecedented Roundtable collaboration between experts in drug law, drug treatment and community welfare.
It finds that Australian governments have failed to take into account that many policies affecting people who use drugs are not considered drug policy, and many specific drug policies have large effects outside the drug domain. They have also ignored the evidence that many people who use drugs will not experience harm unless they come in contact with the criminal justice system.
It calls for the removal of criminal sanctions for consumption and a boost in funding for treatment, to reduce the health, social and economic costs of drug harms ultimately borne by all Australians.
In Sydney, We All Pay the Price was presented to NSW parliamentarians Cate Faehrmann (Greens), Alex Greenwich (Indep), Jo Haylen (ALP) & Shayne Mallard (Lib) along with a petition from Uniting’s Long Walk to Treatment, which highlighted the need for better support services across Australia, particularly in country areas. In Canberra, the report was presented to ACT Attorney General Gordon Ramsay and Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris, who both welcomed the recommendations. The report was also taken to the Victorian Parliament and one of the Roundtable participants, Leader of the Reason Party Fiona Patten, pledged to circulate it to MPs.
IN MARCH 2018, Australia 21 brought together a high-level group of 38 experts specialising in drug treatment, drug law, community welfare and the social effects of drug use in Australia, for an all-day Roundtable discussion in Parliament House, Melbourne. This included representatives from Uniting, Anglicare, the ACT Council of Social Services, the Noffs Foundation, Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, the Penington Institute, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, the ACU Institute of Child Protection Studies, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and high profile addiction specialists, sociologists and criminologists, as well as participants with lived experience of drug use and imprisonment.
The purpose was to explore the ways Australian drug laws and practices impact on Australian society, and to build upon the conclusions of three previous high-level Australia21 Roundtables on illicit drug policy since 2012. The Roundtable group issued a public statement calling on Australia’s federal, state and territory governments to treat drug use primarily as a health and social issue and to remove criminal sanctions for personal use and possession.
With the release of We All Pay the Price, the Roundtable participants called on the health and social sectors to work together to engage broad community support drug law reform in order to reduce the health, social and economic costs of drug harms ultimately borne by all Australians.
In 2017, the ground-breaking report, ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’, was launched by former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett and former NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr, causing a flood of public and media interest. The report called for an end to criminal penalties for personal use and possession and a new focus on addressing the health and social issues associated with drug-taking. Former premiers, police chiefs, prison officers and lawyers stood side-by-side with drug users and their families, to throw down the gauntlet on drug law reform, in response to the findings.
Leading the charge was Australia21 Emeritus Director Mick Palmer, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner from 1994 to 2001 and the Northern Territory Police Commissioner from 1998 to 1994.
“What we now have is badly broken, ineffective and even counterproductive to the harm minimisation aims of Australia’s national illicit drugs policy.”
Jeff Kennett, the founder of BeyondBlue, called for a new era of brave politics.
“The issue of deaths and wasted lives should always be a top priority for any we elect to govern our affairs. Yet in this area of drugs, I don’t think it gets that priority,” he said.
Bob Carr, who also served as Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said there should be wide consultation about introducing more medically supervised injecting rooms and pill testing at music events.
“Let’s not be dogmatic, let’s be open minded.”
Read more about the response to the launch here.
In 2015, Australia21 held a third Roundtable on drug laws, with law and law enforcement experts, which led to the release of ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’.
It was a powerful sign that Australians are losing their stomach for the failed War on Drugs and instead want an end to avoidable deaths and criminal convictions that ruin lives and often push people towards harder drug use.
The participants called for an approach that distinguishes between high-end production and trafficking on the one hand, and personal use and possession on the other. They did not recommend open-slather legalisation of all drugs; instead they supported incremental, robustly evaluated steps towards a national policy of decriminalisation, standardising the discretionary approach to personal use and possession of cannabis and other substances that is already being adopted by frontline law enforcers at the state and territory level. Advertising of any legalised and regulated drugs would not be permitted and some harder substances would require stringent controls, such as prescription by a doctor.
Australia21 was invited to make a submission and appear before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement in relation to the Committee’s inquiry into crystal methamphetamine (Ice). We were also invited to appear before the Committee at a public hearing in Parliament House, Canberra, and provided advice on the ways in which the effectiveness of Australia’s current drugs policy could be improved.
IN 2014, Australia21 was represented at an international medicinal cannabis forum held in Tamworth, where experts from a range of countries canvassed evidence of the potential and demonstrated benefits of using cannabis for medicinal purposes. NSW Premier Mike Baird attended the forum, and committed to conducting medicinal cannabis trials. He also pledged to create NSW Police guidelines that would permit police to exercise discretion and take no action in circumstances where cannabis use or possession was related to treatment of a relevant illness.
IN 2013, Australia21 met with representatives from drug agencies, both government and non-government, to progress the concept of a national summit.
IN 2012, Australia21 held two illicit drugs Roundtables. Following the first Roundtable, we received widespread press coverage, and stimulated a great deal of debate in the mainstream media on the release of our report, The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are all letting it happen. We then explored the question: What can Australia learn from different approaches to drugs in Europe including especially Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden? This provided background for a roundtable in July 2012 to consider the lessons learned from these four countries in developing potentially more effective alternatives to the current approach in Australia. The report of the second Roundtable, Alternatives to prohibition: Illicit drugs: How we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians was published in September 2012 and widely disseminated in the political, drug and welfare community. Following the release of the report, Australia21 met with parliamentary representatives in the Federal Parliament and a resolution drawing attention to the recommendations of the report was passed unanimously in the Senate.
IN 2011, Australia21 developed a background paper, What are the likely costs and benefits of a change in Australia’s policy on illicit drugs, for the our first Roundtable on illicit drugs in 2012.
HOW CAN MAKING DRUGS EASIER TO ACCESS SAVE LIVES? Read 10 FAQS ABOUT DRUG LAW REFORM here.