Australians love drugs. We love ‘em so much that we’re some of the biggest illicit drug users in the world. In fact, drug use is so entrenched in our society, that for some time now the top cops in the land have been fond of bandying around the phrase “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem”. Of course, that hasn’t exactly stopped them trying.
Across Australia, users of any illicit drugs — non-dealers that is — are being busted in greater and greater numbers. In 2011/12, 76,165 were arrested Australia-wide. In 2012/13 that grew to 83,042, followed by 92,874 in 2013/14. The most recent figures, released in August this year, show a further 112,340 users arrested in 2014/15 — an increase of almost 20,000 in just one year. But here’s the kicker: usage rates have remained generally stable. That means the figures can’t be used to claim arrests are reducing drug use, or even that more arrests are happening as the number of users increases.
These statistics are only part of a larger story of drugs and law enforcement, but they illustrate a clear problem: more and more people, who pose no threat to the community, are being busted for possessing or using drugs. Think your Skinny Petes as opposed to your Walter Whites. For drug policy researchers around the country, it’s becoming apparent that it’s the right time to talk about an alternative way forward: decriminalisation of drug use and possession.
Let’s get something out of the way straight up: decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. Under a decriminalisation scheme, there are no longer criminal penalties for possession, but civil penalties still exist. So if you were caught with a couple of pills on the way to Splendour in the Grass, instead of possibly facing criminal charges in court, you’d receive a fine in much the same way as you would for speeding. And sorry punters, your pills would also be confiscated, because they’re still not legal. However, people caught dealing or possessing more than a legal amount for personal consumption, would still face potential criminal charges and gaol time. This puts decriminalisation of personal use somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between full prohibition and full legalisation.
Portugal is the international gold standard of what can happen when decriminalisation is done right. The country decriminalised all drugs in July 2001 with two simple goals: drug use should be treated as a health and social issue and needed a broad-minded response. To complement these aims, they also brought in a range of treatment and harm reduction policies.
“In many parts of the world, especially when they first talked about decriminalisation, it was seen as just kind of a solution; you just do that,” says criminologist and drug policy expert at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), Dr Caitlin Hughes, a decriminalisation proponent. “Portugal, I argue, was one of the first to say, that’s not how we see it. It enables a whole range of other responses.”
The results, she says, have been pretty successful: deaths and HIV transmissions immediately began to fall, along with problematic drug use as people gained access to more treatment or felt less stigmatised searching it out. The overnight removal of criminal charges reduced the burden on the Portuguese justice system as thousands of drug users avoided court. Surprisingly to some, drug use didn’t skyrocket either.
“There were fears that Portugal would become a drug paradise,” a former Portuguese police chief Fernando Negrão told BBC in 2007, “but that simply didn’t happen.” In fact, the most recent data shows that drug use has decreased below 2001 levels in the 15-34 age bracket, which you’ll recognise is when most people start experimenting with drugs.
A similar model based on decriminalisation and harm reduction isn’t such a wild idea in Australia’s political landscape either. There was a point not long ago where Australia was a world leader in drug policy innovation.
“It’s important to recognise that Australia was an early adopter of other models rather than strict prohibition,” explains Director of the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtain University, Professor Simon Lenton. “Historically one of the strengths of the Australian environment is that most drug laws are state and territory based — at least in terms of possession and supply offences and so on. It’s really allowed policy experiments to go ahead.”
He explains that throughout the 80s and 90s, alternative schemes to full prohibition began to pop up across the states and territories. South Australia introduced civil penalties for cannabis in ’87. ACT followed in 92, and then the Northern Territory four years later.
“Even under the Howard government, we had diversion schemes implemented for all drugs — heroin, cocaine, amphetamines —everything other than cannabis and those diversion schemes for those so-called ‘hard’ drugs continue today,” Lenton says.
Diversion schemes began gaining traction in the 2000s as a form of de facto decriminalisation, which means criminal penalties were removed in practice, but not in law. So if you were picked up by police in Western Australia with a joint in hand today, you’d be more likely to attend an assessment and compulsory education program than court. In principle, it sounds like good policy, but in practice, there are a few issues.
“What’s happened as this de facto scheme has evolved, is that we’ve ended up with this real mismatch of different options and a lot of gaps in the system; it means there are still a lot of people who do end up with criminal penalties,” says Hughes. She argues that not only are the guidelines confusing for users but that because these diversion schemes rely on police discretion, there’s a real capacity for inequality in their application.
“That’s why we’ve said, we’ve tried this system for many years, it’s time to move further.”
What Hughes and other researchers propose is full de jure decriminalisation. A de jure scheme would see the removal of criminal penalties enshrined in law, meaning any civil sanctions in place would be applied equally across the board. Those 112,000-odd Australian drug users arrested in 2014/15 wouldn’t be facing possible criminal records, and Hughes says it would open the way for further harm reduction initiatives.
So, I hear you ask, what’s the holdup? Decriminalisation proponents say a lack of political leadership and uneasiness about the term stifles national conversation. What’s pretty bloody peculiar, though, is that a majority of Australians actually support decriminalisation — we’re just not talking about it.
Last year, former Victorian police commissioner and head of the newly minted National Ice Taskforce (NIT), Ken Lay revealed to The Australian that he had considered recommending decriminalising ice as part of a broader strategy. But of the 1300 submissions the NIT received only about 5 per cent were for decriminalising the drug. Lay apparently took this to mean that the strategy was not “supported by the broader community”.
In an election year where six young, casual drug users died of overdoses the summer before, drug law reform was almost a complete non-issue.
“Would decriminalisation be supported? I suspect not,” he said. “Instinctively, it seems the wrong policy.”
In fact, the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (which drug policy makers, researchers and enforcers are still relying on until the next report comes out in 2017) found that 66 per cent of the community supported some form of decriminalisation (fines, referral to treatment, cautions) for possessing smalls amounts of meth or other amphetamines. This put support for decriminalising meth slightly above heroin (64.2 per cent), but still below ecstasy (74.4 per cent) and cannabis (88.1 per cent). Taken together, it seems there is actually broad community support for decriminalisation measures. So what’s going on that the majority of the country can support something, but no one’s talking about it?
CEO of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, John Rogerson, who’s organisation supports a move towards a Portuguese-style model, points the finger squarely at the media.
“We can’t have a rational conversation because they’re just not interested,” he told Penthouse. “As soon as a politician tries to talk about any issue that looks at the drug issues in Australia differently, it usually becomes a front page story on a daily newspaper, and they all duck for cover.
“We need to educate the community because they think prohibiting drugs works so we need to help them understand what works and what doesn’t work. The climate we’ve got at the moment, it’s nearly impossible to do that.”
Others in the field agree with his assessment. “I think rarely is it the case that politicians are prepared to go out on a limb on this stuff because it’s very easy for an opposition political party to frame those in favour of reform of being soft on drugs or responsible for harm or whatever,” says Lenton.
“I think we’re at a stage now where we need to step up to the plate because we’ve got new challenges and clearly in order to respond to these we need to be innovative. There’s a lot of talk at the government level about innovation and we really need political leadership to enable innovation in this area of public policy.”
In an election year where six young, casual drug users died of overdoses the summer before, drug law reform was almost a complete non-issue. The Greens are the only major political party currently calling for introducing civil penalties for drug users and the introduction of harm minimisation initiatives. For his part, Greens leader Richard Di Natale laments the lack of political will in the other major parties to consider the decriminalisation option.
“I know that there are very many Parliamentarians, from all sides of politics, who recognise that treating drug use as a criminal problem isn’t working and we need to start looking at it as a health issue,” he told Penthouse.
“Despite the good intentions of some politicians, however, I find it frustrating that Liberal and Labor have prioritised ‘looking tough’ over the evidence of what works. Too many young lives have been lost because our political leaders don’t have the guts to be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Locking addicts up and making criminals of occasional drug users is a huge waste of money and only making the problem worse.”
Despite the apparent challenges, Hughes remains fairly optimistic of seeing full decriminalisation in an Australian jurisdiction, saying she believes it’s just a matter of time. She points to a number of positive changes across the drug policy landscape here over the last 12-24 months that demonstrate a renewed push towards innovation. Like opiate overdose antidote naloxone being made available without a prescription, plans to make medicinal cannabis legal in Victoria and the ongoing push to introduce pill-testing at music festivals across the country. She also notes that an NDARC a recent briefing paper on decriminalisation was generally well received by even the conservative media. But in order to push the reforms, the community needs to start talking.
“It’s sound, it’s evidence based, we know that decriminalisation can work, and Australia has already done pretty well but could be going further,” she says.
“Australia used to be at the forefront of innovative and pragmatic drug policy but kind of slid. It’s time to change that and take steps that wouldn’t be radical but would make a difference.”
All images from Getty.