“A criminal record for possession of small amounts of drugs can have an impact on employment prospects, on being able to obtain a visa and on the rest of an individual’s life. It is disproportionate,” writes MICHAEL MOORE.
CANNABIS was decriminalised in the ACT in 1992. The policy provided for a $100 on-the-spot fine rather than going to jail. Finally, other drugs are aligning with this policy.
Illicit drugs are not being made legal. Rather, as pointed out by ACT Health, “the maximum penalties for possessing small amounts of some illegal drugs for personal use have been reduced”.
As part of a harm-minimisation approach, ACT Health points out that “the reforms aim to divert people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and encourage them to access health services”.
The Canberra Liberals remain “adamantly opposed to the laws and have re-committed to overturning them if they win next year’s election”. It is surprising that Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee does not realise that this simply reinforces her party as conservatives. Conservatives cannot win the next election.
The ACT government has not gone “soft” on drugs. “Drug use is not safe or encouraged, and police will still confiscate illicit drugs if found on a person”. Lessons have been drawn from the successes of our own experience as a self-governing territory as well as from the management of other drugs in Australia and internationally.
The killer drug is tobacco. It has been the most difficult to manage and has been done with a careful step-by-step approach. Despite being highly addictive, it has not been prohibited. Rather, governments have carefully tightened regulations, levied taxes and placed onerous conditions on manufacturers. Tobacco use has steadily declined.
On the flip side, the tighter the prohibitionist approach, the more difficult the drug is to obtain – the higher the price. Supply and demand dictates the higher the price the more motivation for criminal elements to become involved. In this manner, prohibition drives greater drug use and greater harm.
Finding the right balance used to be referred to in the early 1990s as the “Goldilocks solution’” Not too hot, not too cold. Not too much towards prohibition, not too much towards the free market. Either way increases use and increases harm.
Nationally agreed drug policy aims to minimise the harms associated with all drug use. To achieve harm minimisation, they agree to the three pillars of “supply reduction”, “demand reduction” and “harm reduction”.
The new ACT legislation is consistent with these Australia-wide goals. Supply reduction remains as police will take “a strong stance against drug trafficking and drug dealers. Possession of larger amounts of the drugs covered by the legislation… will still attract higher fines and potential prison sentences”.
Demand reduction demands a significant spend on health promotion and treatment. The new approach encourages users to attend a health education and information session. Treatment must be readily available for anyone who uses drugs. Criticisms of the 2001 decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal, even from their police, are directed at the failure to provide enough treatment.
The action taken by the ACT government on this occasion is as part of harm reduction. A criminal record for possession or use of small amounts of drugs makes no sense. It did not make sense in 1992 on cannabis and it does not make sense now, even with drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines and LSD.
A criminal record can have an impact on employment prospects, on being able to obtain a visa for certain countries (including the US) and on the rest of an individual’s life. It is disproportionate.
Shadow Attorney-General Michaelia Cash failed in her attempt to override ACT legislation. She missed a fundamental historical point. Other legislation to override the ACT has all been reversed. The reversal simply showed that on issues such as marriage equality and voluntary active euthanasia, the ACT was at the forefront of progressive thinking.
Senator Cash was supported by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton arguing: “It is effectively welcoming more ice, heroin, cocaine, MDMA and speed on our streets”. There will be an evaluation in 2025. When the outcome is positive, I predict that neither Elizabeth Lee nor these federal conservatives will have the good grace to eat their words.
The drug wars have gone on for too long. Prohibitionist approaches have failed. As Albert Einstein pointed out: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. We should all look forward to the outcome of the evaluation.
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Ian Meikle, editor