The long-awaited Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform report was released last week. The 50 recommendations delivered read like a checklist of proposals that drug law reformists and harm reduction experts have long been advocating for.
Significantly, politicians of all persuasions have recommended a much-needed sensible approach to illicit substances, in an acknowledgement that the intensified drug law enforcement approach that’s marked the close to fifty years of the war on drugs is failure.
Inquiry chair Labor MP Geoff Howard remarked in the forward to the report, that “there is growing recognition that a dominant focus on law enforcement strategies… has contributed to increased harms, such as overdoses and black market crime.”
Reducing youth harms
“We keep saying that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, yet year on year the amount of drug arrests increases,” stressed Reason Party MLC Fiona Patten. “It is very clear that current policy isn’t working and the government needs to accept these recommendations.”
The inquiry recommendations include that Victorian authorities look towards decriminalising personal possession and use, trialling pill testing at events and removing drug detection dog operations at music festivals.
“At the moment, the war on drugs is a war on our young people,” Ms Patten continued. She explained that a third of Victorians under the age of 30 admit to using illegal drugs, and she doubts this figure is likely to change.
Swimming with the tide
Ms Patten initiated the drug law reform inquiry that received 230 submissions and held nine days of hearings. And she’s no stranger to sparking inquiries that have successful outcomes.
The Reason Party leader instigated the end of life choices inquiry, which saw voluntary assisted dying laws passed last November. And her private member’s bill prompted an inquiry, which saw the Andrews government agree to a trial of the Richmond medically supervised injecting centre (MSIC).
The positive outcomes produced by MSICs around the globe, as well as the Kings Cross injecting facility, are proof “that a progressive approach to drug law really works,” Patten made clear. Not only is the health of injecting drug users improved, but so is the amenity of the local community.
And the inquiry’s recommendations are in line with this type of reform. “We can limp on with our current policy or we can make some real changes,” Ms Patten explained, “by moving the focus of drug offences to health treatment rather than criminalisation.”
The heavy-handed law enforcement approach to drugs embraced by Australian authorities began in the US, when Nixon launched the drug war in 1971. And further back, the prohibitionist system now enshrined in the UN drug conventions was also provoked by the States a century ago.
However, the use of pot for pleasure is now legal in nine US states. And Canada is set to legalise recreational cannabis later this year. The 23rd inquiry recommendation suggests investigating these developments with a view to implementing a system of legalised cannabis for “adult use” in Victoria.
Last year, the committee members paid a visit to Colorado, the first US state to sell retail recreational cannabis. Tax generated by the market has been funnelled into schools and health services. “The regulation of cannabis businesses in Colorado was inspiring,” Ms Patten recalled.
And patients who use medicinal cannabis will be glad to note that the inquiry recommends both the state and federal government slash the red tape preventing access to cannabis medicines, which despite being legal, are currently inaccessible to the vast majority of people who need them.
Opioid substitution therapy
The report states that “the main form of treatment for opioid dependence in Australia is opioid substitution therapy (OST), where the drug of dependence is substituted with controlled opioid medication, mainly methadone and buprenorphine.”
The inquiry makes a number of OST recommendations, including expanding access to treatments, that the government fund dispensing fees to remove barriers to access, and establishing a dedicated arm of government to oversee OST policy.
Ms Patten’s one misgiving is that the report doesn’t feature the Heroin Assisted Treatment program in Switzerland and Canada, which provides heroin to people, who don’t respond to OST. Evidence shows it’s a pathway to stopping, and 99 percent of Swiss participants stay clear of crime.
It’s not the first time
The Andrews government now has six months to respond to the report. Ms Patten believes “the political climate is right to embrace these recommendations.” And she points to the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis, when the federal government became a world leader in drug reform and harm reduction.
“Victoria has a chance to do the same with drug reform and the recommendations of the report give the government a fantastic foundation to build on,” she concluded.
Part 2 of the report on the Victorian drug law reform inquiry reflects on law enforcement proposals and the problems of prohibition.