Prohibition is a Deadly Sin. Churches Support Drug Reform.

Drug prohibition has been fatal for some, and the impacts of criminal conviction have been life altering for others. 

The moral compass is changing. Church groups, historically conservative, are now supporting drug decriminalisation and harm reduction. Will the Australian government follow suit?

Civil society and drug and alcohol services have been advocating for safer and more humane drug laws for some time. In 2001, Uniting, the social justice organisation representing NSW’s Uniting Church, opened the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Later in 2018, Uniting boldly supported the decriminalisation of personal possession of small amounts of illicit substances in their Fair Treatment campaign. Five years later and they continue to passionately advocate for decriminalisation. 

This year, Anglicare Tasmania released a report supporting drug decriminalisation, arguing that the criminalisation of drug use has been ineffective and dangerous. Church run organisations, such as Anglicare and Uniting, recognise that prohibition has had unexpected and devastating consequences. 

Drug policy has always been at the centre of a battle between evidence and politics. While Australia’s National Drug Strategy aims to balance demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction, punitive strategies prevail. Despite the United Nations global stance advocating for the decriminalisation of personal drug use, Australia’s emphasis on punitive action is out of sync with the guidelines. 

The cost of incarceration.

Australia cannot afford to manage social and health problems via the prison. 

Anglicare Tasmania estimates that the annual cost of illicit drug use is $591.1 million, their report states that drug decriminalisation could save $61.8 million per year. 

These figures are not unique to Tasmania. The Victorian Ombudsman states that prison expenditure is spiralling. The Queensland Productivity Commission estimates that $500 million is spent on enforcing drug laws annually. We must consider alternatives to these expensive and ineffective responses to drug use.  

According to a report published this year by the Australian Institute of Public Affairs, Australia has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the world, with over 60% of the prison population having a prior conviction. While sentences for non-violent crimes, such as drug possession, are short, short sentences are associated with more frequent imprisonment and higher rates of reoffending. A period of imprisonment is highly disruptive to one’s life. Imprisonment can have significant impacts on housing, employment, financial stability and can severely disrupt social support networks. These negative outcomes of imprisonment mirror the adverse life experiences that lead to problematic drug use. 

In Australian prisons, people with histories of injecting drug use are grossly overrepresented, yet only 13% of people leaving prison in Australia reported accessing treatment in prison. Furthermore, those receiving drug treatment services prior to imprisonment are not guaranteed a continuation of that support during their time in prison. This approach to drug possession and use is counterproductive, it targets vulnerable people, and contributes to the “revolving door” of Australia’s prison system. 

Has the Moral Pendulum Swung?

Historically religious groups have strongly advocated for an abstinence approach to drug addiction. However, more and more church organisations recognise that punitive drug laws are unethical and instead favour harm reduction strategies focused on treatment, therapeutic justice and compassion. 

When the Salvation Army was founded in Australia, it opened its doors to those on the margins of society, including people with drug and alcohol addictions. The Salvation Army encouraged people to “completely refrain” from smoking, drinking, taking drugs and gambling. Nowadays, the Salvation Army is at the forefront of the provision of harm reduction services in Australia, including fervent support of a second medically supervised injecting room in Melbourne. 

In the United States there is increasing awareness among the religious community about the injustices of criminalisation and the failure of the war on drug users. Churches in support of alternatives to drug prohibition highlight the disproportionate impact that the ‘War on Drugs’ has had on racial minorities in the United States. Strikingly, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society was a signatory to a Joint Letter to House Leadership calling for drug decriminalisation in the United States. The letter was also signed by Network, a Catholic social justice organisation. This support from traditionally conservative organisations, demonstrates that views are shifting. Despite support for decriminalisation from faith-based organisations such as the Uniting Church and Anglicare, the Australian government continues to prioritise a punitive approach to drug use.  

We need decriminalisation now. 

Decriminalisation is not simply a matter of justice, it is a matter of saving lives. Decriminalisation is more than removing punishment associated with drug use, decriminalisation is a part of a broader therapeutic, harm reduction approach, including access to targeted health and social services. Australia must follow in the footsteps of the 30 other countries that have already adopted a model of drug decriminalisation.

Australian jurisdictions already have the capacity to decriminalise drug use. Many states currently offer the essential wrap-around services, such as needle and syringe programs, diversion programs and safe injecting rooms that would make decriminalisation work. 

Drug prohibition is a dysfunctional and deadly policy which targets the most vulnerable in our community. The war on drugs has failed us, we need to challenge the harmful status quo and have faith in decriminalisation.

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