Head of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice Professor Dan Howard SC has requested a six month extension prior to the tabling of the final report, as it needs to properly consider “a key issue” that’s emerged, which is the decriminalisation of ice and other drugs.
The professor made the request to NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian in a letter dated 21 May. He noted that removing criminal sanctions around the personal possession and use of illicit drugs is not only a priority concern in NSW, but it’s also being agitated for in “many jurisdictions internationally”.
The inquiry into crystal meth was established by Ms Berejiklian last November. It’s significant that it wants more time to properly evaluate decriminalisation, when you consider the long list of regressive measures taken by the Coalition in relation to illicit drug use at the end of last year.
And there’s support for the decriminalisation of ice and other drugs coming from prominent sectors in the community. The NSW Bar Association’s submission calls for the removal of criminal sanctions, and both the NSW and ACT synods of the Uniting Church are on the same page.
On everybody’s lips
“Given the reluctance of the Berejiklian government to objectively consider the overwhelming evidence on how to reduce the harm from drugs,” said NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, “it’s extremely encouraging that the commission is dedicating enough time to look into this issue.”
Not only has the premier blocked her ears when it comes to the push for drug decriminalisation, but she also refused to consider pill testing at festivals while the death toll was rising last summer. And by the end of the festival season, a total of five young Australians had unnecessarily lost their lives.
Faehrmann outlined that the inquiry has heard compelling evidence from numerous experts. This includes the Public Defenders Office, which noted in its submission that former law enforcement officials have stated, “Australia cannot arrest its way out of the methamphetamine problem”.
“A decriminalised model would ensure people are able to seek help when they need it by diverting resources away from the criminal system and towards the health system,” Ms Faehrmann continued, adding that police would then be able to “tackle serious crime like domestic violence”.
A step towards regulation
“Decriminalisation plus improved and readily available health and social support would significantly reduce drug-related deaths, disease and crime,” said veteran drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak. “It would benefit people who use drugs, their families and the general community.”
The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation president stressed that politicians also need to look at why a highly-potent drug like ice has caught on in Australia, whereas in other countries, such as the UK, it never has. And there are two chief reasons for this, according to the doctor.
Firstly, the isolation of the country, the huge law enforcement effort geared towards drugs and the risky nature of the business make it “very lucrative”. And Dr Wodak explained that as getting caught is not a certainty and the justice system is slow-moving, these act as little deterrent.
The second reason ice has taken off is as drug dealers and traffickers have to avoid detection, it leaves the smuggling of “more powerful, more concentrated and more dangerous drugs” an easier option. So, where less potent powdered speed was once the amphetamine of choice, now it’s ice.
“Decriminalisation of drugs is certainly needed,” Dr Wodak remarked. But, he added that it’s no cure-all. “Just as decriminalisation is better than criminalisation of drugs, regulating as much of the drug market as possible is where we need to end up.”
The Portuguese model
“Portugal’s successful 2001 reforms emphasised that removing sanctions for drug personal possession and use and the expansion and improvement of treatment,” Dr Wodak told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. And he underscored that decriminalisation and more treatment are both needed.
The Portuguese government decriminalised the personal use and possession of all illicit substances at a time when their use was highly problematic. And eighteen years on, the use of illegal drugs hasn’t exploded, but drug-related deaths and HIV infections have plummeted.
Today, individuals in Portugal found with an amount of an illicit drug in their possession deemed personal are sent before a dissuasion panel comprised of a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker. The panel members can recommend prescribed drug treatment, a minor fine or no punishment at all.
Ms Faehrmann recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Portugal. And she reports that the system is “extremely effective because it recognises that only about 10 percent of people who use drugs will ever become addicted”.
The NSW Greens drug and harm minimisation spokesperson added that the vast majority of people who go before the panels are “able to get on with their lives with no criminal record or any other distressing or degrading experience”. And the courts and law enforcement can focus elsewhere.
Time for pollies to listen
“The tide appears to have definitely turned when it comes to public opinion concerning the criminalisation of some drugs,” Ms Faehrmann continued. “I believe it’s inevitable that all drugs will be decriminalised in NSW.”
However, she put forth that it took years following public calls around assisted dying and abortion for politicians to bring about law reforms, which is a point that Dr Wodak echoed regarding the long gap between the initial decriminalisation of homosexuality and the coming of marriage equality.
“The criminalisation of homosexuality meant the heterosexual majority punishing people with a minority sexual preference involving consenting adults in private,” the doctor outlined. “The criminalisation of drugs involves the majority punishing people with a minority drug preference.”
And the drug law reformist added that over recent years the number of “retired and even some serving police commissioners” that have been advising the public that it’s impossible for the nation to arrest or imprison its way out of its current drug problems has been rising.
“This is surely a message in code for our political leaders to begin to redefine drugs as primarily a health problem and start funding drug treatment properly,” Dr Wodak concluded. “Now the Uniting Church in Australia is repeating this message.”