Why Victoria should review its response to drugs and decriminalise usage
By Fiona Patten on
The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the (alcohol) prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. Albert Einstein, 1921
I know enough to be sure that what we now have is badly broken, ineffective, and even counterproductive to the harm minimisation aims of Australia’s national illicit drugs policy. Mick Palmer, 2017, a former Australian Federal Police commissioner.
Almost a century apart, one of the greatest intellects in human history and one of Australia’s leading law-enforcers expressed the same truth.
Halfway between those two evidence-based statements, the so-called “War on Drugs” was launched.
Also centred on prohibition – the very notion that so spectacularly failed to prevent free citizens from consuming alcohol and that created a lucrative, predatory black market – the 50-year “War on Drugs” is clearly one of the most dreadful and damaging blunders in the history of public policy.
It has caused the death of countless innocent people and devastated the lives of so many others. It has squandered trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. It has generated a monumental black market, enriching organised criminals.
Which is why I am bringing into the State Parliament on Wednesday legislation to decriminalise all drugs.
It is about evidence-based policy to reduce the harm caused by drugs.
It is about saving lives. It is about treating drug use as a health issue with a health solution, not a criminal one.
Prohibition is being replaced with successful harm-minimisation approaches the world over.
People with drug problems are connected to the health experts who can help guide recovery. It’s a way of reducing harm, as are diversion programs, safe-injecting spaces, needle exchanges, and narcotics substitutes.
Decriminalisation advocates do not assert using drugs is ok. Drugs are dangerous.
Supporters of decriminalisation accept the evidence showing treating problematic drug use as a health problem, is the most effective and efficient way to reduce harm to health and wellbeing.
Decriminalisation does not mean legalisation – decriminalisation is the removal of criminal penalties for specific offences. When we talk about decriminalisation of drug use or possession, we are talking about removal of penalties for those offences, but not offences like drug trafficking, manufacture or supply.
Decriminalisation does not result in increased drug use – indeed often the opposite. Crime falls. Incarceration rates dive. Deaths and drug-related ill-health decline. Police resources are freed to go after the organised criminals.
Ignoring the evidence on drugs is like denying climate science. It is not rational or sensible.
We should not only accept corroborated evidence but listen to experts. The countless advocates for this change include the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
Under my proposed law, Victoria Police would issue a compulsory notice and referral to drug education or treatment to people believed on reasonable grounds to have used a drug of dependence, or to possess a drug of dependence.
Almost 95 per cent of drug arrests in Victoria are of private consumers, not providers. Of the 32,860 drug arrests in Victoria last year, 26,195 – or just on 80 per cent – were for drug use or possession. Possession or attempted possession is around the sixth most common charge heard in the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria.
Prohibition has utterly failed. Change here in Victoria and throughout Australia is inevitable. The timing will depend on lawmakers’ integrity and courage to do what we’re supposed to do, produce evidence-based policy in the public interest.
It will also depend on voters. So much change comes from the community, from the ground up, not the authoritarian top down.
Fiona Patten MP is Leader of the Reason Party.