Rethinking our approach to illicit drug policy

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By Steph Hodgins-May, Federal Greens candidate for Melbourne Ports

The evidence from a century of prohibition and ‘tough on drugs’ policies is clear – the way governments and law enforcement approach illicit drugs has created harm, not prevented it.

Every year in Australia we spend hundreds of millions of dollars arresting and locking up people who are addicted to, or use drugs recreationally. Of the $1.7 billion spent by the Australian government on this issue over 2009/10, three times as much was spent on law enforcement than on treatment.

Victorian jails are filled with individuals caught up in the criminal justice system, young people are still tragically losing their lives at music festivals, and new and often more dangerous drugs continue to be used.

11249400_10153295384268663_6530482024078285122_oMeanwhile, our hospitals cannot keep up with patients injured or dying from drug misuse; and drug treatment centres cannot service their enormous waiting lists meaning people seeking rehabilitation are being turned away without help.

It is time to acknowledge that this problem is not going to be solved by more police or bigger prisons and that we can, and must, change the way we manage illicit drug use.

Fortunately there are international models that we can learn from if our politicians have the courage to confront this challenge. It may not be palatable to everyone, but if we look to Europe and some states in America, we see workable and highly innovative policies that not only reduce drug use, but which see fewer people imprisoned and allow police to divert their resources to addressing what are often more serious crimes.

Switzerland, the Netherlands, Uruguay and most significantly, Portugal, address illicit drug use as a health issue, not a criminal justice matter. In Portugal, they separate recreational drug users from addicts and offer them the opportunity to seek treatment and employment, rather than time in prison. Police no longer arrest and lock up young people for personal possession of illicit drugs. This has led to a reduction in crime, disease, imprisonment and, most importantly, in drug use.

The results of properly managed drug reform are well documented – it actually reduces drug use, crime and ill-health. Economically and socially, those jurisdictions that have reformed their drug policies have better health and other outcomes. Those who say we need more policing and tougher penalties cannot point to a single country where these approaches have worked.

The Australian Greens’ drug reform policies are little different to those introduced in conservative European countries. The Greens believe that our current policy doesn’t work, and the laws that we have don’t stop people using illicit drugs. We want to stop pursuing, arresting, judging and incarcerating people with a health problem and instead provide the treatment, employment, inclusion and pathways that allow those who use drugs other opportunities.

There has and always will be people who choose to use drugs for a variety of reasons. We can also make laws and programs that reduce harms so that effects associated with drug use are not compounded. For example, we’ve led the world on needle and syringe exchanges in response to HIV and Hepatitis C. We can continue this approach with access to safe injecting rooms, with easy access to medication that reverses the effect of drug overdose, with methods for checking the quality and components of drugs bought on the street and with health promotion outreach to public events.

Recognising the imperative for Australia to refocus its approach to drug law reform, Greens leader Dr Richard Di Natale, a former GP specialising in drug and alcohol addiction, will bring together experts and Australian politicians at a Parliamentary Summit in March 2016. The Summit will consider evidence informed approaches to drug policy and will be an important step towards a more mature and considered national conversation around drug law reform.

My hope is that 2016 is the year that politicians from all sides of politics listen to the evidence and call drug addiction for what it is; a health issue. Only then can we ensure that people with severe drug problems who want help can get it – quickly, easily and affordably.

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