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As the problem continues to grow, it’s time to look for alternate solutions to the ice epidemic – and decriminalisation is that. | Rob Idol
The Greens put out a rather progressive policy suggestion last week extolling the decriminalisation of illicit drugs. As expected, they have copped a furious backlash, but backlash or no, this is a discussion we need to have.
The idea of decriminalising a drug such as ice, and others like it, is bound to cause concern for many. On the surface it does sound counterintuitive; as anti-drugs campaigners have suggested, it may send the message, “drugs are okay.”
But it doesn’t have to. The message can still be that drugs are terrible and destructive, but that we’re willing to help you rid yourselves of them. We’re willing to throw resources to rid you of your addiction without throwing you behind bars where your use is statistically likely to increase.
Decriminalisation and legality are vastly different terms that are often erroneously interchanged.
Decriminalisation in situations like this is a method of cutting through to the actual problem, rather than just throwing punishment at it. No matter which way you spin it, addiction is a mental health issue. It will not be fixed by increasing the punishment to the end user – if anything, that approach both here and abroad has seen the problem get significantly worse.
Ask yourself, what do we actually want to achieve in addressing the ice epidemic in this country? Do we want to continue to keep penalising people whose only crime is becoming addicted to a substance that any one of us would likely become addicted to if it entered our body? Or do we want them to actually stop?
No-one is suggesting that we start allowing ice to be sold at your local bottleshop. No-one is suggesting that those who commit crimes while under the influence of the drug should not be punished in the usual way under the law.
The suggestion is simply not to criminally charge people for its use.
Why would we want to do a thing like that, you may ask? Drugs are bad, taking them is bad; why not make it illegal? In my mind, it’s for two main reasons. The first is that our current system is not working. The system in the US which is quite similar, is also not working. What is working in other places, is decriminalisation.
The second is that our system fails to acknowledge that addiction is not always a choice. Sure, taking that first hit might be a choice, but having it take over your life is certainly not. There would not be an ice user on earth who has willingly chosen to take on an addiction that will most certainly ruin their life and likely the lives of those around them.
In the proposal, The Greens have pointed to Portugal. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised possession of all drugs for personal use. Under this system, users were no longer charged with a criminal offence but would still be subject to consequences such as fines and community service.
The penalty for the user is issued by “Commissions for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction” – regional panels consisting of legal, health and social work professionals – people with far more expertise in the area than simply judges and lawyers.
The move has been a success. It is important to point out, however, that decriminalisation was only part of the strategy. It was complemented with greater resources allocated to prevention, treatment, harm reduction and social programmes. Whilst some would argue that these additional strategies are significant contributing factors to the statistical evidence, the reality is that their success is symbiotic with the decriminalisation process. Changing the criminal approach to drugs allowed these other factors to become part of the success story.
Following these moves in Portugal, the following happened:
- Levels of drug use dropped below the European average
- Drug use declined amongst 15-to-24-year-olds – those most at risk of starting
- Rates of past-year and past-month drug use decreased
- Rates of problematic drug use and injecting drug use decreased
- Rates of continuation of drug use decreased
- The number of newly diagnosed HIV cases among people who inject drugs decreased from 1,016 to 56 between 2001 and 2012. In the same period, the number of new cases of AIDS among those who inject drugs went from 568 to 38
- The number of deaths directly related to drug overdoses (where the cause of death is deemed drug overdose from a toxicology report) reduced from 80 to 16 between 2001 and 2012
- According to a study from 2010 in the British Journal of Criminology, Portugal saw a decrease in drug-related charges alongside a surge in visits to health clinics that deal with addiction. The former to be expected, the latter to be hoped for.
On the flipside, let’s have a look back home and see how successful our criminal based approaches have been. According to the Australian Crime Commission’s Illicit Drug Data Report 2013-14 (the most recent on record), things don’t really seem to be working:
- There were 112,049 national illicit drug arrests – the highest on record
- There were 27.3 tonnes of illicit drugs seized nationally – the highest on record
- There were 93,086 national illicit drug seizures
- The number of people convicted in court for illicit drug offences in 2013-2014 increased by 15 percent nationally. Of more concern, over half of those convictions were for possession or use – and only 17 percent for dealing and trafficking. This increase was the largest increase of all offence types nationally that year.
Those statistics are just scratching the surface. We know that it’s not working – it’s become such a problem that the Federal Government implemented a National Ice Action Strategy in 2015 .
This isn’t about a “soft” or “hard” approach. This is about developing a rational strategy to actually fix the problem. Punishing the end user does not fix the problem – but making access to rehabilitation easier and more attractive sure as hell might.
Let’s also have a think about resources. Is it the best use of law enforcement’s time to focus on catching end users, or to focus on suppliers? Will putting more users behind bars stop the supply? Will it put the suppliers, the real criminals in this situation, out of business? Not for a second – it never has, and it never will. The problem with a substance like ice is there’s always another customer waiting around the corner. That customer could be a person like you or me or someone we love. Do we want to help those that fall victim, or lock them away and hope that the situation resolves itself?
The damaging individual and societal effects of illicit drugs in our community is a hot topic – and it will remain one, as tangible results from solutions enacted thus far are limp. So, as Einstein so eloquently put it:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
What the Greens have suggested may sound insane to many, but it is far more insane to continue with a strategy that has never and will never work.