Going soft on drug possession won’t fix the problem

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BILL STEFANIAK lost a son to the effects of drug abuse. He finds it painfully hard to see any virtue in a move in the Legislative Assembly to decriminalise hard-drug possession…

NO parent expects to have to bury their child, but three years ago, on January 2, 2018, my 24-year-old son Jozef said what were to be his last goodbyes to my wife and me when we left for a holiday near Pambula.

Bill Stefaniak. Photo: Holly Treadaway

At about 6.10 the next morning, Joe’s older brother John appeared in our bedroom doorway to tell us Joe had been killed in a car accident about 12 hours earlier. 

His mate’s girlfriend had driven the car while high on the drug ice. At about 137km/h on Yarra Glen, she lost control of the car. Joe and his mate were the other passengers in the car. 

She was jailed for culpable driving and leaving the scene of an accident, and is due to be released on parole soon. Her time in prison has hopefully cured her drug addiction.

There are no safe drugs. Even basic cannabis can cause mental health problems and is far more likely to give the user lung cancer than cigarettes. Hydroponic cannabis is 20 times as strong as basic cannabis and causes significant mental health problems, as does heroin, cocaine, ice and other hard drugs.

Cannabis – thanks to MLA Michael Pettersson, the proponent of the new Bill decriminalising ice and other hard drug possession – is already legal to possess in small quantities. It is inconsistent with Commonwealth law. 

Mr Pettersson’s proposed new Bill will make it a basic infringement notice offence to possess small quantities of hard drugs. For example, a person can possess up to half a gram of ice and still only get an infringement notice of 1 penalty unit – less than a parking ticket.

Naturally, all the local mayors and the Police Association (AFPA) are ropable about this Bill. It also appears no-one appears to have been consulted. One might think the Labor backbencher would at least have consulted fully with the AFPA and the ACT branch of the AMA.

Naturally, ACT Labor and the Greens did not take this Bill to the local election, but it would have to have been ticked off in cabinet to have got this far.

The main rationale behind the Bill seems to be to stop anyone convicted of possession of a small quantity of these hard drugs to avoid the “stigma” of a conviction and also to direct the user to seek help from health professionals – a noble aim that can be achieved at present by a court – as regularly happens with drug offenders.

Young Mr Pettersson seems to think that there are hundreds of users out there who have gone to court (and possibly jail) for possession of small quantities of hard drugs. As a former prosecutor, defence counsel, ACT Attorney-General and Police minister who still occasionally goes to court these days as a solicitor, I can say this simply is not the case. 

Indeed, I struggle to think of anyone in the last 20 years in Canberra who would have been jailed just for possessing a small quantity of hard drugs alone. Maybe Mr Pettersson should supply court figures for the last 10 years on this point.

I also presided between 2009 and 2016 over many mental-health cases as a presidential member of ACAT and, sadly, a good many of our clients had their mental-health problems worsened by taking hard drugs such as heroin and ice. I’d say probably as many as half the people who appeared before me fitted into this category.

Ice especially is a particularly nasty drug. The AFPA said on radio 2CC recently that under Mr Pettersson’s Bill possession of even half a gram is enough for 10 hits which would put the average user into a bender for several days.

It’s the police, ambos and first responders who will bear the brunt of Mr Pettersson’s folly. He and his government colleagues will not be the ones who have their faces punched in by ice users on benders. 

Any benefits from his Bill can and do already happen (the rehab etcetera). All Bills like this do is tell vulnerable young people it’s okay to use hard drugs. Bills like this trivialise the problem.

We in the ACT and in Australia have not tried the one potential solution that should be obvious to us .

The extensive national advertising that accompanied the campaign against AIDS in the 1980s and the successful blanket campaigns against smoking over the years (including the great indigenous messages by Winnunga that are currently streaming ) should be tried.

Blanket advertisements showing how dumb it is using hard drugs and messages in our schools may well have a great effect in turning young people off usage. A potential answer is staring us in the face. 

Maybe if young Michael changed tack and withdrew this stupid Bill and replaced it with a well thought out blitz advertising campaign led by the ACT we would most likely gain a lot of support and respect from our local region and be seen as leaders and not a bunch of decadent trendies living in a Canberra dream world introducing schemes that stuff up further the lives of our fellow Australians across the border

Nothing will bring my son Joe back, but my wife Shirley, his brother and sisters and I would love to see fewer people take hard drugs so more parents can be spared the pain we have felt at losing our son.

Bill Stefaniak is a former Liberal ACT opposition leader.

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