Law | Australia

13 October 2021

With drug seizures and arrests climbing, leaders should expect to see an impact on users, but overdoses and deaths have risen too. Australia needs to take the leap and decriminalise drug possession, Vernon White writes.

The impact drug addiction is having on Australians is both apparent and alarming.

Australia’s ‘war on drugs’, in its current form, has been a failure. While Australia has battled drug abuse in one form or another for decades, it has seen over the past five years a growing trend of drug overdoses and deaths, higher in many jurisdictions than at any time in recent history.

While addiction and healthcare advocates have been searching for solutions to the surging overdose problem, for most there is one common agreement – drug addiction has been criminalised for too long.

It is time Australia asks the difficult question – should forbidding drug use remain the focus of drug policy? Or is it time for an alternative course, where the country makes a concerted effort to treat addiction as a health and social issue?

A shift from Australia’s current model of criminalisation to a health-based approach could be beneficial for those who use substances, but this wouldn’t be at the cost of the police, justice system, health/social services, or communities, who all could stand to benefit too.

More on this: Podcast: A war on drugs, or a war on drug users?

This is because decriminalisation would allow the Australian justice system to focus on suppliers who prey on drug users, rather than those who suffer from addiction to these substances.

Criminalisation isn’t working. Criminal prohibition of the possession and supply of drugs has been central to Australia’s current war on drugs approach, but rising deaths show this is ineffective and inadequate. The stark reality is that if criminalisation was the way to address substance use, increased arrests would see a decrease in use and overdoses, but that is simply not happening.

While the continuous success of law enforcement, highlighted by ever-increasing arrests, seizures, and prosecutions cannot be argued, those successes haven’t translated into a real impact on drug use and danger to the community.

Drug seizures do very little to combat drug addiction and abuse. Even as arrests and seizures have increased, police have seen little or no impact on pricing or availability, indicating seizures are having limited or no effect on supply.

This is well-understood by many in Australian policing. Former Victorian Police Commissioner and Ice Task Force Commander Ken Lay has argued that Australia cannot arrest its way out of its drug problems, and former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer went further, arguing for the removal of criminal penalties for simple possession.

More on this: Australia has a drug problem

This is because it would allow the police to focus their assets to the combatting of drug trafficking, while eliciting a medical response to drug use and addictions.

One thing above all is clear – with Australians in the firm grip of both an ice epidemic and a growing synthetic opioid problem, the current plan is not working. A shift away from criminalisation might offer hope.

Some may think that decriminalisation discounts the accountability of drug users. Importantly though, possessing drugs would remain illegal under decriminalisation.

However, the impact of being caught with drugs would not be a criminal charge.

A 2014 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy defined decriminalisation as the removal or non-enforcement of criminal penalties for use or possession of small quantities of drugs or paraphernalia for personal use – this approach is surely sensible in Australia.

In most cases, drug use could, and would, still incur some kind of penalty for users, just not a criminal penalty. Decriminalising simple possession and providing access to addictions treatment and community programs could replace criminalisation to the huge benefit of drug users and that of the broader community.

Ultimately, Australia’s current approach does not work – but decriminalisation could offer addicts a path to their rehabilitation and allow police and the criminal justice system a reprieve from their already overburdened workload. It’s time Australia took this approach.

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