VIC Drug Summit A 'Game Changer' In How Australia Treats Drugs And Crime, Experts Say

"The War on Drugs approach was well intended but failed disastrously"

What you need to know
  • More than 30 experts gathered in Melbourne in March to discuss a new way to treat drugs and the law
  • A landmark agreement was produced calling on government to "remove criminal sanctions for personal use and possession"
  • The participants will now lobby government and society for change

Drug reform advocates say a recent meeting in Victoria could prove to be a "game changer" in how Australia treats illicit substances, after a landmark agreement opposing criminal prosecution and favoring treatment and harm reduction policies.

Already since the meeting, the Northern Territory government announced an inquiry to "explore" options such as decriminalising marijuana.

The Australia21 think tank assembled more than 30 drug experts, health bodies, social service groups and academics for a meeting at Victorian parliament on March 21, to discuss solutions for the nation's drug-related issues under the theme of 'help not harm'. The meeting ended with an unprecedented agreement from all involved, calling on Australia’s federal, state and territory governments to:

"treat drug use primarily as a health and social issue and to remove criminal sanctions for personal use and possession. We make this call because our own professional experience supports overwhelming evidence that current Australian drug laws, although well-intentioned, create and/or worsen a wide range of health and social harms. "
'A gear change'

Participants say the fact the diverse group -- which included Anglicare, the National Drug Research Institute, ACT Council of Social Services, social services provider Uniting, sociologists, and former police officials, and hosted by Victorian MP Fiona Patten -- agreed to such a seemingly radical proposal, and to push for governments to change their thinking, will be seen as a "turning point" in Australia's drug policy.

"I was really stunned by it," Kasy Chambers, executive director of Anglicare Australia, told ten daily.

"The time to have treated drugs as a legal issue is now gone.

"It’s not an issue we should try to arrest our way out of. Often, with the people we work with, there is harm done by drugs but the harm done by society’s response is often what scars people longer."

"We need to be talking to governments about treating this as a health issue and a social issue. It’s much much cheaper for us to fund rehab centres and programs than to put people into prison, let alone the outcomes compared to someone who goes to prison."

Victorian MP Fiona Patten, who hosted the meeting, said the outcome was a "certainly a gear change" for how Australia deals with drugs.

"We don't need to do more research, no more academic study, the information is in and now we need to look at how we implement it, how to bring our elected members with us. Frankly, the public is with us. It’s now just bringing those representatives along," she told ten daily.

"We know what the path is, what the solutions are. Now it’s about how we achieve that."

The meeting came just days before the Victorian government itself released the findings of its own inquiry into drug law reform , with the chief recommendation that "the Victorian Government’s approach to drug policy be based on effective and humane responses that prioritise health and safety outcomes."

Since the meeting, the Northern Territory government also announced an inquiry to "explore" options such as decriminalising marijuana.

'What we’ve got is an absolute bloody disaster'

Mick  Palmer was Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police between 1994 and 2001. He was one of those who put his name to the agreement, having spent much of his time since leaving the AFP advocating for drug reform.

"Keeping what we’ve got is an absolute bloody disaster and we need to be brave enough to make new decisions," he told ten daily bluntly.

"It's not just talking about drug reform itself. We need to talk about what positives are we trying to achieve. It's the negatives on family issues, social issues. It’s a deeper symptom of mental health or homelessness or hopelessness.

"That’s the way forward, not just talking about drug reform, without giving people damn good reasons other than it doesn't work.

"It’s a journey of many steps. The attitude of the public is changing."

Perhaps the most notable recent example of that changing public attitude was the April announcement from the federal Greens to push for the legalisation of recreational marijuana. Palmer was involved in that announcement, appearing with party leader Richard Di Natale at a press conference to support to the reform.

Palmer told ten daily removing criminal penalties around marijuana use would mean people would avoid the criminal justice or prison system, as well as allowing resources to be diverted to other policing or drug treatment initiatives.

"There's damage we do to them by treating them as criminals, in relation to job prospects, travel, housing, family, relationships between them and police. All young people take risks and break the law to some extent. They wouldn't come to notice for any other reason, but now we give them a criminal record they wouldn't have," Palmer said.

"I know police, barristers, judges who used cannabis recreationally. It didn't impact on their careers. They are unlikely to be criminalised because they do it in private. Only a small percentage are arrested, you've got to be very unlucky, and the vast majority are indigenous, homeless, or have mental health issues, who are committing this conduct in public. They’re easy fodder. Police do exercise discretion well, but still tens of thousands are charged."

"The war on drugs approach was well intended but failed disastrously in Australia and other countries."

Treatment pathways over criminal justice system

Founding director of Australia21, Bob Douglas, said the meeting discussed the benefits of diverting drug users into treatment pathways rather than the criminal justice system.

"Arrest and prosecution often involves the loss of employment, housing and family and community support. This can spiral into further crime, but also increase family homelessness, domestic violence, child protection interventions, mental health issues and suicide rates,” he said.

"Meanwhile, prohibition and the threat of criminal penalties drives drug users away from the help they need and puts the production, distribution and control of illicit drugs into the hands of criminals."

Laurence Alvis, who works in Uniting's alcohol and drug services in Melbourne, called for money spent on jailing or punishing drug users to be better used in treatment or rehabilitation programs.

"By prioritising treatment, we could reduce the negative impact of focusing on criminalisation rather than harm reduction. We see the failure of the current approach in the length of waiting lists for services like ours," he said.

"It means that service funders focus on short episodes of treatment, when we know that treatment over a longer term is more likely to produce lasting outcomes."

Chambers said Anglicare clients are often harmed more by the justice system's penalties for drug use than by the drug itself.

"When drug policy gets very strict and we get knee jerk reactions from politicians, what does that mean for someone young who would normally leave the drug culture naturally in a few years, if they get jailed for a few years? It’s the jail that is the scarring effect that harms their job and housing prospects," she said.

Vow to push governments nation wide

The roundtable's participants agreed to continue pushing governments nationwide to adopt decriminalisation policies, as well as push messages that legal punishment for drug offences may be causing more harm than good. A joint communication strategy was hammered out, and members say further public awareness campaigns will be unveiled.

"The attitude in the community is growing, and people are getting a deeper understanding that what we've got isn't working very well, but it’s about what we do to make it better and not worse," Palmer said.

"That understanding is growing. There’s a need to share lived experiences, ways to get those real life messages out about the pain and suffering of what we’ve got, and who is most disadvantaged of that. Every time you have those discussions with otherwise decent people, you change their minds. The lights come on."

Chambers was optimistic about the next steps for the participants in the meeting, saying she hoped it would mark a true game changing moment for Australia's treatment of drug issues.

"The statement was a good blueprint for governments," Chambers said.

"That summit was the start of something."