Australia Advocates say ACT plan to decriminalise illicit drugs will help community but deep concerns remain
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Chris Gough lived in the grip of heroin dependence for close to a decade.
At 42, he still needs methadone but has turned his life around, and now helps others through his work in the drug treatment sector.
"I was on the streets for a couple of years and had to claw my way back up into society," Mr Gough said.
His body has healed but one scar cannot be removed: a criminal conviction for drug possession.
"It destroyed my life, destroyed my relationships and sent me on a path of poverty for a decade," he said.
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"I was pretty highly skilled — I have a science degree in entomology with honours — but I ended up with a conviction for cannabis and then heroin possession, and it blocked me out of meaningful employment for a decade."
Under a new bill tabled in the ACT Legislative Assembly last week, Mr Gough would have avoided a criminal conviction and instead been fined and sent for intervention.
"The police would point me towards a health service — and I can tell you I badly needed to be pointed towards a health service at that time," he said.
Proposed law limited to 'personal' amounts
The bill, introduced by Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson, would amend the existing Drugs of Dependence Act to change the way those caught with a personal supply are dealt with.
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The amounts considered "personal possession" would be limited by weight, and include 0.5 grams of MDMA and 2 grams of cocaine, heroin, ice and mushrooms.
|MDMA (ecstasy)||0.5 grams|
|LSD (acid)||0.002 grams|
|methylamphetamine (ice)||2 grams|
|psilocybin (mushrooms)||2 grams|
Drug trafficking, supply and drug driving would remain a crime under the proposed laws.
Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee said the opposition was open to change, provided it was based on evidence.
An Assembly committee will scrutinise the private member's bill before it returns to the chamber for debate.
Australian first, but changes already made elsewhere
The legislation, if passed, would make Canberra the first place in Australia to decriminalise illicit drugs — but it would not be a world first.
The US state of Oregon brought in similar laws last year and Canada is also considering decriminalisation in some of its larger cities.
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Advocates of decriminalisation, such as Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform president Bill Bush, point to overseas successes as evidence to support the bill.
"It works, and increasingly it's been seen to work … if you approach it as a health and social issue rather than as a law-enforcement one," Mr Bush said.
"Our present punitive law-enforcement system, that relies principally on the criminal law as the underpinning of our drug policy, is the most extreme form of nanny state intervention that you can imagine."
Lessons from Portugal's experience
Portugal became the first country to decriminalise possession of all drugs in 2001 — a change that led to a drop in drug-related deaths and disease, and less pressure on the justice system and prisons.
João Castel-Branco Goulão was one of the architects of that policy and is now Portugal's national drug coordinator.
He said the approach was based on the idea that Portugal was dealing with a social and health problem, rather than a criminal one.
"The results that we have had during those 20 years are much more positive than before," Dr Goulão said.
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"The main thing is making support, treatment, harm reduction available for those people, and treating them in a humane way, trying to find the best responses for them."
But Dr Goulão warned that decriminalisation was only a first step — it must be paired with a comprehensive set of policies.
"We had to do much more than just decriminalise to have the steady results that we have had from in the last 20 years," he said.
"I would say that there's a huge investment to be done but, even then, it's much cheaper than maintaining people in prison, with all the heavy justice system to deal with this problem, and it is much more efficient."
Calls to fund treatment and harm-minimisation support
In Canberra, even those in favour of decriminalisation concede it is not a silver bullet.
Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT chief executive Devin Bowles feared that, without a multi-pronged approach, drug users would remain left behind.
"We have waiting lists that are causing some people to not bother seeking treatment anymore and that's a real loss," Dr Bowles said.
"So, in addition to decriminalising, we need to appropriately fund the alcohol and other drug treatment sector.
"Treatment itself can take many months, but the window of opportunity — when someone is able and willing to go into, potentially, quite intensive treatment, maybe even residential treatment — that window doesn't always stay open forever."
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Mr Pettersson, who tabled the bill, said he had been advocating for more investment in treatment and harm-minimisation measures from within government.
"The Government, through its budget process, should hopefully — and this something I will advocate for — be prioritising more funding for these services," he said.
'It sends all the wrong messages'
But arguments like these have done little to persuade some.
The son of former Liberal leader Bill Stefaniak was killed in 2018 when a drug-driver lost control of the car they were in.
Mr Stefaniak, who left the Assembly in 2008, said there was no safe drug use and believed education campaigns — like those used to reduce smoking — would have a greater impact.
"We're talking very serious, nasty drugs that cause people severe mental health issues," he said.
"It's simply something we just don't need, it sends all the wrong messages and I feel it encourages younger people [to think] that it's OK to take these serious drugs."
ACT police officers carried out more than 1,100 drug seizures last year.
ACT Policing does not oppose the bill but Detective Acting Superintendent Callum Hughes said it already has a strategy of targeting drug dealers rather than users.
Acting Superintendent Hughes said the current approach to illicit drugs included a diversion program that supports and educates users. Almost 200 people were referred to the program in 2019-20.
"We focus our efforts where we get the most bang for buck — and that's in targeting the sale and supply, and those profiting from the organised crime nature of these offences, and not on the users of illicit substances," he said.
Federal Government concerned plan will increase drug use
The Federal Government, meanwhile, is concerned that decriminalisation can imply that illicit drugs are safe, and may increase their availability or use.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Greg Hunt said any illicit drug was a "high risk activity", and such drugs cause "significant health, social, economic and personal harms".
ACT Liberal senator Zed Seselja described Mr Pettersson's legislation as dangerous.
"Canberrans would be shocked and appalled to think the ACT Government is going soft on hard drugs like ice and heroin," Senator Seselja said.
But Mr Gough argued the war on drugs had failed and it was time for a new approach.
"I don't think that will see a big rush of people wanting to try heroin just cause it's been decriminalised," he said.
He says decriminalisation will reduce stigma, which would in turn encourage problem users to seek help.
"People who use drugs… they punish themselves more than anything — we call it self-stigma," he said.
"They're socially isolated, they fall away from their family and their friends and all of this comes from that very simple point that drugs are illegal and that you're doing something wrong that society punishes you for.
"We need to rethink that, we need to be supporting people, we need to think of it as a health problem."
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