Growing public pressure to enact meaningful drug reform

At the recent Canberra book launch for my just-released title, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, the Canberra Times interviewed the territory’s Justice Minister about his progressive views on drug reform. The article about it appears in today’s paper (and follows last weekend’s extensive coverage in the same newspaper of my book). The articles are all written by journalist Blake Foden:

He also said he would like to see the use of illicit drugs other than cannabis decriminalised.

Mr Rattenbury spoke on Thursday night at the Canberra launch of investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein’s new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs. Mr Loewenstein believes illicit drugs should be legalised, allowing governments to save money on law enforcement and raise money for health and education programs by taxing drug sales.

Mr Rattenbury told the audience at the Shine Dome he was “deeply frustrated” by the soaring number of people being locked up across the country.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average number of people in custody increased 52 per cent between the June 2009 quarter and the June 2019 quarter, when there was an average 43,306 people locked up daily. This was despite Australia’s resident adult population only growing by 19 per cent.

Mr Rattenbury said there were 452 detainees in Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre, with 20 of them there because of a principal offence involving drugs. A further 22 were convicted on a secondary offence related to drugs.

This struck the ACT Greens leader as “surprisingly low”, but he said drug use was often the underlying cause behind other types of offending. Two-thirds of new prison entrants in Australia last year said they had used illicit drugs in the year before being incarcerated.

“I’ve been a minister for corrections for seven years, and in that time, thousands and thousands more people in Australia have ended up in jail,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“When I first came into the portfolio, NSW had about 8000 people in custody. They now have 13,000.

“This is a national disgrace on a whole lot of levels, aside from the fact that it costs us a fortune and it has a terrible social toll.

“So much of this, I think, is around drug policy, but also mental health policy, and the two often cross over.”

Mr Rattenbury said even though the legalisation of cannabis was being debated in the ACT Legislative Assembly, the territory’s politicians had to grapple with the question of, ‘How far can we get?’ because of federal constraints.

“What we are doing currently does not work, is not working and is doing our community an enormous disservice, so we must go forward believing that we can do better,” he said.

Speaking to the Sunday Canberra Times after his speech, Mr Rattenbury said Australia spending two-thirds of its drug policy money on law enforcement meant people were left crying out for more treatment options.

“We’ve got our priorities all wrong,” he said.

Asked whether he shared Mr Loewenstein’s view that illicit drugs should be legalised, Mr Rattenbury said he thought the “first and obvious step” was decriminalisation.

“I think the first step is to actually take the criminal element out of it and treat drug policy as a health issue, not a justice issue,” he said.

Asked whether he would like to see the use of illicit drugs other than cannabis decriminalised, Mr Rattenbury said yes.

“I think we need to think carefully through each of the drugs, but broadly, that’s my view,” he said.

Thursday’s launch event included a panel discussion featuring Mr Loewenstein, social scientist Anna Olsen, law professor Desmond Manderson and emergency medicine specialist David Caldicott.

All spoke of the toll taken by the global war on drugs and the need for law reform to address it.

In one example, Dr Caldicott praised Portugal for decriminalising all drugs in 2001 and redirecting law enforcement funding to treatment measures as the country grappled with soaring rates of drug use and HIV infection.

“As a consequence [of decriminalisation], there’s not a country in the world that has fewer drug-related deaths per capita,” Dr Caldicott said.

“The HIV rate has plummeted. People who are in social strife because of their drug use are rehabilitated in society.”

Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform president Bill Bush, who attended the event, said he was thrilled to hear Mr Rattenbury and experts say the current approach in Australia was not working.

He said the current approach was particularly harmful for young people and that “getting criminal law off the back of people who use drugs, however you do it”, was the way forward.

On the same day, the newspaper editorialised in support of serious drug reform:

The then-Portuguese prime minister decided the country’s problems with drugs could not be resolved by simply doing more of the same thing, so illicit drug use was decriminalised and funding was redirected from law enforcement to health.

Dr David Caldicott, an emergency medicine consultant and pill-testing advocate based in Canberra, recalled Portugal’s “extraordinary about-face” in his charismatic style at a drug policy event this week.

“It was like the Etch a Sketch was, you know, over the top of the head,” Dr Caldicott said, shaking his hands vigorously in the air as if to clean the slate and start anew.

Portugal’s decriminalisation policy has been an undoubted success, reducing levels of drug use, drug-related deaths and the HIV rate, among other social benefits.

It’s a big part of the reason Antonio Guterres rose to become the United Nations’ secretary-general.

Who among Australia’s politicians might be bold enough to look at changing the way this country deals with illicit drug use, and create for themselves a similar legacy?

Here in the ACT, it is clear some already recognise the need for change.

The possession and use of small amounts of cannabis has already been decriminalised in Canberra, where it is punishable by a small fine and no conviction. Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson has proposed taking that a step further and legalising the drug for personal use, with his bill the subject of debate in the ACT Legislative Assembly.

ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury made his views on Australian drug policy clear this week, expressing “deep frustration” at the “national disgrace” that has resulted in ever-increasing numbers of people being incarcerated, created in part because of the treatment of illicit drug use as a criminal issue instead of a health one.

The current state of play is “doing our community an enormous disservice”, Mr Rattenbury says.

So what do we do about this?

Whether following Portugal’s lead and decriminalising the use of illicit drugs in Australia would work remains to be seen.

There is also the argument, put forward by people like author Antony Loewenstein, that the answer is legalising the use of all illicit drugs, then raising money for education and health programs through regulation and taxing the sale of drugs in legal markets.

Former US first lady Nancy Reagan famously said young people should “just say no” to illicit drugs. History shows this hasn’t worked. There has to be another way.