What would drug decriminalisation do to Australia?
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What would drug decriminalisation do to Australia?

Stories/269 , Issues/Alcohol & Drugs , Issues/Policy
Sydney NSW, Australia
16th Nov 2017
What would drug decriminalisation do to Australia?
Wayne Forbes from Unharm explains the positive ramifications of drug decriminalisation and harm minimisation in Australia.

Drug decriminalisation is a controversial topic and one that could go down like a lead balloon if it was proposed by any mainstream political party. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't explore what drug decriminalisation would look like in Australia.

Wayne Forbes is from the Sydney-based drug decriminalisation and harm prevention group, Unharm.  He wants to highlight the most relevant things to focus on when talking about the decriminalisation of drugs.

Source: Unharm Facebook Page.
Source: Unharm Facebook Page.

How would decriminalisation impact the amount of over doses that occur across Australia?

Although it is hard to get solid data sets on how decriminalisation would impact overdose levels, Forbes says there are figures that are quite telling.

"There isn't a lot of data globally on what decriminalisation does, because comparatively data sets focus on what prohibition and punitive practices do," Forbes said.

"If you look at Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalised, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addition tells us that per one million people, three die from drug related deaths.

"Compare that to the UK, which sits inside the European Anglo-sphere and has comparable policies to Australia, you see 44.6 people per million die from drug related deaths," he commented.

According to Forbes, Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001. Drugs are still illegal, but being caught with a personal supply would mean you'd cop a fine or be referred to a drug treatment clinic, not face a gaol sentence.

"It's important to remember that it wasn't only decriminalisation that happened - there were a raft of social reforms that swept Portugal from 2001 onwards - however, it's hard to ignore the figures," Forbes stated.

What are the social impacts of decriminalising drugs?

Forbes said the question of social impact isn't considered enough when talking about decriminalisation. He said there needs to be a coupling of different existing social services and an expanding of others for the decriminalisation process to be effective.

"Any decriminalisation legislation requires a coupling with care services such as mental health outreach services, social workers, a reduction and possible expunging of criminal records," Forbes said.

"It's common knowledge, and governments all have data telling them that increasing frontline services provides a net gain in health outcomes for the population."

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre estimated that the all branches of the Australian government spend about 1.7 billion dollars on fighting illicit drug use.

About two thirds, or just over $1 billion, goes on enforcement. Demand reduction gets about 30 percent, around $500 million, and surprisingly harm reduction only gets about 2 percent.

Forbes says we should be spending more on helping people with substance abuse illnesses, education and getting people off the streets.

"Imagine if we threw a billion dollars into helping people instead of charging them with non-violent drug offences. Imagine if we educated people on what safe drug use is, where to get help if it becomes problematic, how to engage in community care," he said.

"Imagine if we treated drugs like gambling. I'm not saying problematic drug use would disappear, but at least we could aim to help, rather than punish."

Pictured: Wayne Forbes.
Pictured: Wayne Forbes.

Would drugs have a more accepted place in society if they were decriminalised?

People won't be forced to accept drug addicts and problem drug abuses into their homes, schools or workplaces if drugs were decriminalized. Instead, Forbes thinks we need to centre a "people first" approach to decriminalisation.

"The reality is that people use drugs so if we want a policy that works, we need a policy that puts people first," Forbes said. 

"Treating problematic substances use differently to recreational use of substances would also be beneficial.

"It would allow frontline services to be targeting people who are problematic users, rather than assuming that all people who use drugs are problematic, which clearly isn't the case," he commented.

How would the decriminalisation of drugs impact drug-related arrests and police action against drug users?

According to Forbes, decriminalisation would have a massive impact on the way the police deal with drug arrests and drug-related crime.

"I like to imagine police would be directed from being a force to being a service, where cops can direct problematic users to help services and help recreational users be safer users," Forbes said. 

Forbes reckons that with less time chasing and investigating petty drug crimes, there would be more time for officers to fight crimes like domestic violence, gang crime and violent gun crime.

"Obviously, police would be freer to investigate violent drug offences or other violent crimes," he said.

"If they weren't all caught up policing petty drug crimes there would be more resources to work different cases across the whole community. Police would be free to investigate dealers, manufacturers and distributors, not users.

"I can think of lots of other things I'd like to see cops doing rather than standing at train stations checking for people who have recreational use drugs on them," he said.

What can be done to lobby the government to seriously consider decriminalisation and harm reduction?

The one thing Forbes suggests everyone do is that they contact their local MP to voice their support for drug decriminalisation.

"The most important thing is to write or email a member of parliament," Forbes said.

"Social change is only ever achieved through legislative changes and the only real way to get that happening is through the power of democracy. Email and call the offices of the Police Minister Troy Grant, local state MPs, find politicians who support a change like the Greens candidates and MPs.

"We need to show the government that there are people who support drug decriminalisation. We need to push the government so they investigate this matter further," he said. 

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