The Vic Drug Law Reform Report Part 2: Law Enforcement and Prohibition

As reported in Part 1, the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into Drug Law Reform report was tabled in state parliament last week. It recommends a large number of sensible policy approaches to illicit substances, many of which relate to drug law enforcement.

Indeed, the report acknowledges that law enforcement strategies have had little impact on eradicating drug supply and demand, but what it has done is increased the harms associated with outlawed substances, including contributing to the growth of “black market crime.”

The document delivers recommendations regarding law enforcement that include decriminalisation for certain offences and an overhaul of drug driving laws, so there’s an emphasis on testing for impairment levels, rather than mere traces of illicit substances as currently happens.

Drug offending

The report identified a range of programs used by courts to address substance use disorders, when they’re found to be an underlying cause of people committing crimes. And the committee recommended these programs be expanded.

One of these is the Court Integrated Services Program. It provides services, such as case management, for offenders with substance use disorders four months prior to sentencing, with the aim of reducing reoffending and promoting safety.

The Drug Court of Victoria is also earmarked for expansion. It allows individuals whose offending is drug or alcohol related to undergo a treatment program, rather than incarceration. If the offender fails to complete the treatment or reoffends, they can be ordered to serve a custodial sentence.

And the drug law reform committee also recommends treating personal drug possession and use “as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue,” meaning that these offences would become decriminalised.

Law enforcement approval

Executive officer of the Yarra Drug and Health Forum Greg Denham said “quite frankly our emphasis on policing and prisons to stop drug use have failed and we need to take a new direction, with special emphasis on health, human rights and harm reduction.”

Mr Denham has keen insight into the issue of drug law enforcement as he’s a former Victoria police senior sergeant, who served seventeen years on the force. He believes the inquiry has drawn a line in the sand whereby efforts attempting to address drug harms can now be redirected.

The harm reduction advocate agrees with the “general philosophy” of the report, which would leave “the courts to deal with more problematic and difficult cases,” as “the majority of people that use illicit drugs don’t cause any harms to themselves or others and they should be treated accordingly.”

“The report makes sense from a number of perspectives, not the least of which would be the massive saving of public funding if we moved toward decriminalisation models, such as that currently used in Portugal,” Denham further made clear.

The most pressing points

Leading drug law reformist Dr Alex Wodak considers the decriminalisation of personal possession, the regulating and taxing of recreational cannabis, and the expansion of opioid substitution treatment (OST) as the most significant recommendations.

The president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation also pinpoints the trialling of the use of the pharmaceutical-grade opioid hydromorphone for individual’s that haven’t responded to other OST as important.

“Many countries have adopted these approaches some time ago,” the doctor told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. He added that others are “now seriously considering or have approved, but not yet implemented, a number of these policies”

“It’s important to remember that there is now a large and growing consensus that the war on drugs has failed comprehensively,” Dr Wodak continued.

The legacy of the prohibition

According to Dr Wodak, “deaths, disease and costs to the economy from cigarettes dwarf” those caused by all psychoactive drugs. Alcohol is next in line. And bringing up the rear are the harms caused by prescription and illicit drugs.

The drug law reformist posed the question as to why ice suddenly became so readily available in this country. Answer: “the lore of prohibition” is that “drug traffickers try to minimise the chance of being detected, so they try to traffic more powerful drugs that occupy smaller volumes.”

Alcohol prohibition in the US saw beer disappear “replaced by wine and spirits,” Dr Wodak outlined. But, as soon as prohibition was over, “beer reappeared.” And heroin became the replacement a decade after some Asian countries banned the smoking of opium.

The need for reform is drastic

“The more and the longer we press down on the drug market, the more dangerous the drugs in the market become,” the doctor stressed. “There is growing awareness that current policies are not just ineffective, but also dangerous.”

Indeed, in the face of all this evidence, let it be hoped that Victorian authorities heed the recommendations of the report, which have already produced positive outcomes elsewhere around the globe. And from there, the various Australian jurisdictions take the hint and do the same.

Paul Gregoire About Paul Gregoire
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on civil rights, drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. Along with Sydney Drug Lawyers, he writes for VICE and is the former news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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