Canada Decriminalised Drugs! When will Australia?

Australia has a drug problem

In 2020 alone, as a nation we spent over $10 billion on illicit drugs, and 1,788 Australians lost their lives to drug-related overdose.

As RACGP president Dr. Nicole Higgins puts it: “If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is”.

Despite the best efforts of governments and hundreds of billions of dollars of expenditure, the war on drugs has failed spectacularly in all aspects. Despite the criminalisation of drug use, rates of drug use are showing no signs of slowing down, deaths continue to increase, and prohibition-fuelled organised crime continues to devastate low-income countries.

The Australian Federal Police continually confiscate Drugs but even they acknowledge that they cannot stop drugs entering the country.

The Australian Federal Police spend millions on policing our borders and confiscating drugs, yet as technology continues to evolve, preventing drugs from entering the country is becoming an increasingly impossible task.

Of particular concern is the current opioid crisis turned disaster due to fentanyl - a drug 50 times stronger than heroin. North America is currently experiencing the brunt of the fentanyl epidemic; however, experts warn that Australia will face the same problem in the future, with shipments of fentanyl becoming increasingly common and worrying.

But it’s not just an opioid issue. Criminalisation promotes dangerous drug practices and prevents life-saving initiatives such as pill-testing services from being implemented. Canberra’s pill-testing service trial found that nearly a quarter of the drugs tested did not contain the expected substance. As a result, we continue to hear stories about young people dying from taking untested and unknown party drugs. The government knows with certainty that people are going to take drugs, so surely it’s their responsibility to prevent unnecessary harm.

So, the question is, why do we continue to fight a war on drug users? And what is the alternative? We can look no further than to Canada for part of the answer: decriminalisation.

Decriminalisation of Drugs in British Columbia

Criminalising drug users has had devastating impacts on the Canadian province of British Columbia - the epicenter of opioid use in Canada. In 2022, 2,272 people throughout the province lost their lives as victims of the toxic drug supply due to the war on drug users.

The province has a long history of progressive harm reduction policies. It is home to North America’s first safe injection facility and an innovative, safe supply program (Safer Alternatives for Emergency Response), operating since April 2021. In keeping with this trend, in January of 2023, the Canadian government took another step forward and decriminalised the personal possession of certain illicit drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamines, MDMA, and perhaps the most shocking to many: heroin and fentanyl.

Under the new law, adults over 18 years of age will no longer be fined or arrested if found possessing small quantities of drugs. Funds previously used for enforcement will be put towards harm reduction services and community treatment programs. The logic is simple: treating drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue will save lives.

International Evidence on Decriminalisation

Decriminalisation is not a new concept. A quiet revolution is underway, and close to 30 countries worldwide have adopted drug decriminalisation in one form or another, including the Netherlands, Mexico, Spain, and even Australia. There is a growing consensus that we must desperately change our outdated drug policies.

And we know that decriminalisation works. Portugal - once the ‘heroin capital’ of Europe - provides the best example of its benefits. In the 20 years since the country decriminalised personal drug possession, the country has witnessed a substantial reduction in the number of drug-related deaths, rates of drug use, and cases of HIV transmission.

Of course, British Columbia’s decriminalisation policy has been met with criticism. Many believe that decriminalising drugs actively encourages more drug use, particularly in young people. Not only has this proven to be untrue - as seen in Portugal - but criminalisation itself has spectacularly failed to prevent people from using drugs. Although passionate, those resistant to decriminalisation do not provide a humane alternative.

Australia's National Drug Strategy

One thing is clear: treating drug users as criminals via outdated prohibitionist policies is dangerous. Criminalisation creates a culture of shame and fear, and deters people from seeking life-saving help, if appropriate. This stigma isolates them from society, perpetuating the vicious cycle of problematic drug use. We need more compassionate policies.

Australian Governemnt spends 66% of Drug Policy Budget on Law Enforcemnt

The Australian government preaches the importance of harm minimisation in our National Drug Strategy. The strategy consists of three pillars - demand reduction, supply reduction, and harm reduction - and calls for a balanced approach across these pillars. More must be done in order to fulfil the promise of harm reduction. The decriminalisation of drug possession would allow for a portion of the $1 billion of funding currently spent on drug law enforcement to be spent on treatment and harm reduction programs and services - a move guaranteed to save more lives.

In a perfect world, British Columbia’s decriminalisation of personal drug possession will open the floodgates for other countries to learn and follow in their footsteps. We can only hope that it does not take a fentanyl crisis in Australia to compel us to do the same.

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