By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
A new report by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) has found that ‘cocaine-induced deaths’ have doubled in Australia over the past 5 years, and deaths relating to the use of methamphetamines deaths are also on the rise, four times higher than they were a decade ago.
The report has renewed calls for a regulated market for currently illegal drugs, whereby controls could be placed on purity levels and ensure that potentially-deadly fillers and other chemicals do not find their way to users.
The new report was compiled by NDARC and the University of New South Wales in Sydney, placing the spotlight on the illicit drug market in Australia.
According to the report, the availability and prevalence of cocaine has been steadily rising since 2015.
Sydney has retained its reputation as Australia’s “cocaine capital”, consistently showing the highest use, with increased hospitalisations and treatment episodes also linked to the drug’s use.
The research has also found that Australians have a substantial appetite for illicit substances compared with many other ‘Western nations’ – a demand that shows no signs of abating.
‘Intentional’ deaths increasing
The report further found that of the estimated 1,865 drug-induced deaths among Australians in 2019, one in four were intentional.
Overall, drug-induced deaths among males were almost twice the rate of females in 2019, with the highest rate amongst 45 to 54 year olds, followed by 35-44 year olds.
Data on psychosocial risk factors was also included for the first time, with researchers finding at least one such factor was present for about a quarter of unintentional deaths and 62 percent of intentional deaths in 2019.
Other factors identified were disruption of families by separation and divorce, relationship problems, legal issues and the loss of a person in the primary support group.
This highlights a major problem with Australia’s current punitive approach to drug dependence and drug use because vulnerable people who are dependent on substances are punished, rather than helped, and they remain addicts, stuck in the hopeless cycle of dependency.
Over the past few decades, Australia’s heavy-handed law enforcement approach has resulted in the mass incarceration of people for merely using illicit substances. It has also fostered the rise of criminal networks and, as the figures show, resulted in increased consumption.
The ‘war on drugs’ is failing
This NDARC survey, along with its predecessors and numerous other bodies of research over recent years show that drug use in Australia is a growing national problem. It exists across a number of age groups, cultures, socio-economic bands, and geographic areas, and as it continues to grow it is becoming much more difficult to address successfully with intervention programmes and health care services.
Of course it’s naive to suggest that there shouldn’t also be a focus on law enforcement. Last month, Australian Federal Police intercepted 200 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside a boat sailing off the NSW coast, believed to have originated from Belgium, and arrested a 27 year old man.
At the time, the AFP said “Australia is a really lucrative market for drugs, so therefore we are targeted by transnational organised crime groups.”
And while there is no disputing the fact that stopping the drugs from hitting Australian streets is a huge win, there is also no question that specialist drug teams are well resourced. What’s clearly lacking is more focus, money and resources for early intervention, education and treatment programmes.
The simple fact of the matter is that while current illicit drug eradication policies remain concentrated on the supply end of the equation, they will never be truly effective without a concentrated effort on dealing with demand.
Drug possession in New South Wales
Drug Possession is an offence under Section 10(1) of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act. The maximum penalty is 2 years in prison and/or a fine of $2,200.
Since January 2019, Police have had the powers to issue on-the-spot fines to anyone in possession of small amounts of drugs. Under Schedule 4 of the Criminal Procedure Regulation Act 2017 (NSW), an on-the-spot fine can be issued for less than the following quantities:
- Amphetamines – 1 gram
- Cocaine – 1 gram
- Heroin – 1 gram
- Ketamine – 2.5 gram
- Buprenorphine – 4 grams
- Mescaline – 3 grams
- Steroids – 50 grams
- Cannabis oil – 2 grams
- Cannabis resin – 5 grams
The Schedule does not apply to the possession of cannabis leaf because the ‘cannabis cautioning scheme’ already gives police the power to issue a caution to adults (without issuing a fine) who are found in possession of up to 15 grams of cannabis, provided there has not been a prior caution given to the person found in possession, the person has no prior drug convictions or convictions for sexual and / or violent offences.