Last month AIVL Staff attended ‘Is it time to legalise drugs?’ a discussion by Drug Policy Australia on Friday, June 24. Presentations by Dr Alex Wodak, Dr Annie Madden AO, The Honourable Michael Kirby, The Honourable Bob Carr, Greg Chipp and Emma Maiden covered topics of the harms of illicit drug criminalisation, drug law reform, and the need for drug policies to be viewed within a public health lens, stating that our current drug policies are not assessed on merit but rather cultural and societal ‘norms’, characterised by moralistic righteousness against the backdrop of maintaining diplomatic ties through the established rhetoric of prohibition politics.
What is the rationale behind drug decriminalisation and legalisation?
The main agenda pushed by drug decriminalisation, and legalisation bills are to shift the focus on drug use and dependency from being treated as criminal justice and moralistic issue, towards public health and a socialistic focus that seeks to address and improve the underlying health and social outcomes for people who use drugs. Criminalisation prevents people who use drugs (PWUD) from utilising health services due to the stigmatisation surrounding illicit drug use which has subsequently branded PWUD as a ‘criminal class’, a subclass born out of the unsubstantial moral and cultural fibres that underpin much of the discourse on drug use in Australian society.
What is decriminalisation?
Decriminalisation is not to be confused with legalisation, the dichotomy between the two terms is significant. When used in the context of illicit drugs, ‘decriminalisation’ sets distinctive regulations surrounding what constitutes as a drug related offence, and what is permissible under the legislative acts of jurisdiction.
Essentially, decriminalisation de-criminalises an act, event, or substance, meaning it either removes or lessens the criminal element attached to it, so that instead of receiving a criminal charge for a drug related offence, other incentives such as fines, mandatory education, or treatment notices in place of punitive measures carrying a criminal conviction.
With respect to drugs, decriminalisation is mostly concerned with possession and personal use, meaning that possessing certain quantities of a drug for personal use is permissible. However, selling and manufacturing drugs remains a criminal offence.
The implementation of drug decriminalisation policy in Australia largely occurs in conjunction with investment in treatment services. Court drug diversion programs are now available in all jurisdictions in Australia, which are aimed at diverting minor drug and alcohol-related offences out of the judicial system into the health system. They largely require clients to participate in education and development programs and negotiate achievable treatment plans with AOD sector services.
What is legalisation and what is the takeaway message?
The best way to explain drug legalisation is to use the example of alcohol. There are no penalties for possession and use of alcohol. However, there are restrictions and regulations In place for sale, supply and distribution, For instance, medical warnings on consumption during pregnancy, advertising restrictions, age limitations, restrictions on the amount purchased in one transaction at certain venues, ban on sale to intoxicated persons and various other measures.
This is not to say we would start seeing magic mushrooms amongst our regular varieties at the markets, and ‘would you like a line of cocaine with that?’ Is not going to become a common catchphrase either should we go down the drug legalisation path.
The main takeaway message on drug legalisation is not that illicit drugs suddenly be seen in a radicalised new ‘free for all to indulge’ spotlight, quite the opposite. What legalisation primarily sets out to achieve is allowing illicit drugs markets to be taken over and regulated by governments, making it more difficult for criminal run drug syndicates to peddle counterfeit drugs of unknown purity and ingredients which are causing untold harms to PWUD and creating violent gangways over the control of the illicit drug markets.
It seeks to remove the social taboos and stigma surrounding drug use and change societal attitudes towards all drug use essentially being a risk-tasking dangerous encounter, to understanding that certain drugs when taken in the right dosages, knowing that the exact ingredients, and taken within the right circumstances, pose no more harm to anyone (in most cases less harm) than alcohol or tobacco.
Certainly, a black market is always going to exist, this is just the nature of human society, we seek to push the boundaries and go beyond. Hence, new psychoactive substances and synthetic drugs will continue to be made, though prices would be higher than the legal market and demand less. It is a fair argument to say that few PWUD would be willing to pay premiums for black market drugs when there are cheaper drugs of known purity and substance available on the legal market.
So, is it time to legalise drugs?
If supply control and criminalisation of PWUD is to be argued as being an effective measure, then the general outlook of drug trends within the Australian landscape would present themselves very differently. The fact that there has been steady and consistent increases in the number of newly identified psychoactive substances, global drug production and consumption, falls in prices and increases in drug purity, stands as testament that the criminalisation of drugs and prohibition politics have comprehensively failed, and alternative methods appear increasingly more attractive.
AIVL are hopeful that with our new turn of government we may see some progressive measures put in place to create a better health landscape not only for PWUD but society as a whole. It is high time to end the stigma against PWUD and recognise them as part of our community who for too long have been underserved, not undeserving of being able to live in a society free of stigma and discrimination.
Adrian Gorringe - Project Officer, AIVL.
AIVL is the national organisation representing people who use/have used illicit drugs and is the peak body for the state and territory peer-based drug user organisations.
Jake Docker, CEO, AIVL – email email@example.com