The global ‘war on drugs’ is one of the single-most catastrophic public policy failures in history. Now one Victorian MP has put forward a bill to decriminalise the personal possession and use of prohibited drugs.
The private member’s bill doesn’t have the support of the government or opposition, so it’s highly likely to fail, but it’s started an important conversation about how our drug laws are harming people, and how we can improve them.
The whole point of prohibition was to reduce drug use and drug-related harms. Not only has it failed to do so, it’s had the opposite effect.
Prohibition has expanded drug markets and created a more dangerous drug supply. Drug-related deaths increased 60% worldwide between 2000 and 2015. Illicit drugs now account for 1.3% of the global disease burden.
Prohibition has our priorities completely out of whack
In Australia, law enforcement consumes between 61-69 per cent of the total drug budget, and treatment only 20-23 per cent. As a result, every year we arrest 80,000 Australians for drug use, while up to half a million can’t access the treatment they need.
Governments need to recalibrate their drug budgets so the lion’s share of funding goes into treatment services, where it’s an investment, and not law enforcement, where it’s a sunken cost. They also need to listen to the health and law enforcement professionals who are calling on them to immediately decriminalise the personal possession and use of prohibited drugs.
Decriminalisation isn’t the same as legalisation
Decriminalisation simply means that while the personal possession and use of drugs would remain illegal, criminal penalties would not apply. Instead, people would be diverted from the criminal justice system and referred to treatment and support services.
At present, policing of our failed drug laws overwhelmingly targets everyday people who use drugs. In Victoria, for example, almost 95% of drug arrests are of individual users, with 80% of all drug arrests last year only for drug possession or use.
Decriminalisation would enable law enforcement to focus its efforts on going after the real criminals instead of everyday citizens who happen to use drugs.
Drug use is not a problem we can arrest our way out of. People continue to use drugs even when it is unlawful to do so. And criminalisation causes many people to delay seeking help when they have a problem with illegal drugs for fear of getting in trouble. Not only does criminalisation limit help-seeking, we punish and imprison people instead of giving them the treatment and support they need.
The Portuguese model
Portugal decriminalised the personal possession and use of drugs two decades ago. Despite widespread concern it would encourage drug use and create chaos, this hasn’t happened.
In stark contrast, drug use has not increased. Related crime has fallen. Health outcomes are better. Fewer people are dying. Order has been restored.
The Portuguese model is so successful because it removed criminal penalties for personal possession and use of prohibited substances from the law, and adopted a health-focused approach to drug use. Other jurisdictions are now emulating its success.
Instead of criminal charges, people found with small amounts of drugs are provided advice and health interventions from a panel consisting of a legal expert, health professional, and social worker supported by a multidisciplinary team. The panel also links people with a network of other supports, including employment, psychological, medical, and housing services. People can also access safe forms of drugs they’re dependent on from government-approved providers.
Drug diversion programs fall short
Compare that to Australia, where criminal penalties for personal possession and use of drugs remain in law, and to avoid them people must go through a drug diversion program. Diversion programs exist throughout Australia, and while they have many benefits, they also have drawbacks.
Benefits of drug diversion programs include cost savings, high compliance and decreased offending following diversion. The big drawback is people can still face criminal penalties when they shouldn’t.
Victoria’s drug diversion program, for example, prescribes treatment and has a maximum of two diversions. Cautioning decisions are left to the discretion of police officers or the court. This discretion, coupled with the limit on diversions and mandated treatment, results in inconsistent and unfair outcomes.
There’s a range of reasons why people might fall through the cracks of diversion programs. They may not be ready for treatment, or they may be struggling with an addiction and are unable to reduce their drug use without professional help.
That’s why drug diversion programs should be made mandatory, limits on the number of cautions removed, and treatment must always be voluntary.
The COVID pandemic has reminded us all of the importance of evidence-based health policy in keeping people safe.
The sooner we apply this pandemic lesson to drug policy, and decriminalise the personal possession and use of drugs, the better.
Photo by Goashape on Unsplash.