By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Portugal decriminalised the possession of small quantities of all drugs fifteen years ago. Citizens found in possession of a permissible amount of an illicit substance receive a citation or they’re sent to see a “dissuasion panel.” Those who repeatedly appear before these panels are prescribed treatment.
The rate of HIV infections in the country dropped from 1,016 in 2001 to 56 in 2012, while overdose deaths decreased from 80 to 16 over the same time period. And drug use in the country has fallen since the law came into effect, despite claims by conservatives that the laws would lead to an explosion in drug use.
The International Narcotics Control Board lauded the Portuguese model as exemplary in December last year.
The Australian Greens announced over the weekend that they’re officially dropping their blanket opposition to the legalisation of illicit drugs from its policy platform. Greens party members voted to support the change at their national conference in Perth on Saturday.
The new policy sees a major Australian political party move into line with developments in drug law reform that are taking place across the globe.
Leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, was behind the push for this new approach that would see the decriminalisation of illegal drugs and the legalisation of some for recreational use.
Di Natale accepts that the global war on drugs has failed and hopes the party’s policy will spark debate over the decriminalisation of drugs. The senator – a former drug and alcohol clinician – has visited Portugal and seen the benefits of their approach firsthand.
The party’s policy explicitly acknowledges that the punitive approach hasn’t stopped illicit drug use. It recognises that legal framework for recreational drugs use should be informed by the evidence of the harm a substance is likely to cause, and that education is the key when dealing with both legal and illicit drugs.
The cost of criminalisation
NSW Greens MLC Dr Mehreen Faruqi told Sydney Criminal Lawyers, “it’s time for politicians at both the federal and state level to pull their heads out of the sand, open their minds and listen to the evidence.”
The doctor says that “the heavy-handed, punitive and prohibitionist approach on drugs has not worked at all – not for families, not for young people and not even for the taxpayer.” She adds that while vast amounts are spent on imprisoning people who use drugs, this “does nothing to reduce harm.”
The Global Commission on Drug Policy report released in June 2011, found that the criminalisation of drugs across the globe has also led to the growth of a huge criminal black market and actually increased drug consumption worldwide.
Life-saving pill testing
A key aim of the Greens’ new policy is to establish a national regulatory authority to look at ways to best reduce the harm associated with different drugs on a case-by-case basis.
“Setting up a body to develop drug policies including decriminalisation, regulation and pill testing within a health and social framework is evidence-based and the only way forward,” explained Dr Faruqi, the NSW Greens spokesperson on drugs and harm minimisation.
There has been a push for the introduction of pill testing in Australia, since a tragic spate of drug-related deaths occurred at music festivals last year. Pill testing allows festival goers to check the contents of their drugs and make informed decisions about whether they should take them.
This harm minimisation measure has been available in many European nations – like the Netherlands – for decades. And it actually works as a market regulator, as drug producers are forced to “quality assure” their products.
The proposed drug regulatory body could lead to the complete legalisation of the recreational use of some drugs, such as marijuana. But Di Natale made clear that harder drugs, such as heroin or ice, may not be legalised under this model.
Dr Faruqi pointed out that on November 9 this year, the US states of California, Nevada and Massachusetts voted to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. In 2012, the first states to legalise it were Colorado and Washington, while Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia followed suit in 2014.
And as Ms Faruqi put it, “the sky has not fallen in.” Indeed, in the state of Colorado legalised pot brings in millions of dollars of revenue a month, which has been used to fund schools. And there’s also been a drop in crime rates.
An end to the dogs
The NSW “Labor and Liberal parties continue their support of dangerous policies like drug sniffer dogs,” Dr Faruqi said. The NSW police drug detection dog program has a high false positive rate. Around 70 percent of people searched are found to be in possession of no illicit substances.
While the presence of sniffers dogs at festivals leads some attendees to partake in dangerous drug taking practices such as preloading – taking all their drugs before an event – and the hiding of drugs in body cavities in packages such as condoms.
Panic overdosing – also known as ‘loading up’ – can also occur when a person sees approaching police and sniffer dogs.
An Australian Greens motion was passed in the federal Senate in August this year, calling on the Turnbull government to introduce a range of evidence-based harm minimisation policies. These included the removal of sniffer dogs and the introduction of pill testing at events like music festivals.
Of course, the Greens’ policy change has had its detractors. Australian justice minister Michael Keenan described it as “dangerous” and a “threat to the community.” Like opponents of Portugal’s move to decriminalise drug possession, Mr Keenan warned that it was giving a “green light” to drug dealers.
Federal health minister Sussan Ley declared the government would never legalise “a drug that destroys brain function,” saying they’d continue their hardline stance.
Australian Medical Association president Michael Gannon said he welcomed discussion of treatments, but thought decriminalisation was going too far.
But this is to be expected from conservative elements, who see law enforcement as the only way.
Harm reduction: the Australian way
However, the Greens’ new drug policy actually hearkens back to when Australia was a world leader in the field of harm minimisation. Since 1985, reducing the risks associated with drug use has formed the basis of the nation’s National Drug Strategy.
Needle syringe programs were introduced in 1986, which contributed to our nation having some of the lowest HIV rates amongst people who inject drugs in the world. And the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre – the first of its kind in the English-speaking world- was set up in Kings Cross in May 2001.
According to Dr Faruqi, it’s high time for drug law reform in Australia, as community momentum for it has been building. “But this conversation needs to get much louder at the political level,” she concluded.