Queensland has long been one of the most conservative states in Australia, with a history of equally as conservative drug laws.
Soon, it will be home to some of the most relaxed drug laws in the country.
Queensland's new plan
The Queensland government has announced major changes to their drug policies as part of its 2022-2027 Alcohol and Other Drugs Plan.
The state is expanding its Drug Diversion Program. Where previously, the legislation only applied to cannabis possession, it will soon include all types of drugs.
And it will soon become the first in Australia to legalise pill testing.
Drug Diversion Program
As part of the Drug Diversion Program, people found in possession of illicit drugs will be given a warning on their first offence. On their second and third offences, they will be mandated to participate in a diversionary program, where they will receive counselling and education. However, you can still be charged if you fail to participate in the program.
These reforms bring Queensland in line with other states, where police are able to exercise discretion to determine whether or not to charge individuals found with illicit drugs. But with these new laws, Queensland is the first state to mandate these protocols, and it will soon have some of the most lenient regulations in Australia.
Benefits of Drug Diversion Programs
The reforms have been introduced after calls from medical experts, community groups, the Queensland Productivity Commission, and even the Queensland Police Service.
A 2019 Queensland Productivity Commission’s report determined that drug decriminalisation would save the state “between $165 million and $270 million in annual prison costs”. Although Queensland hasn’t fully decriminalised drugs, this is a first step towards that.
This change will not only save the state a massive amount of time and money. It will prevent thousands of individuals from coming into contact with the criminal justice system and change lives.
The number of people being charged for simple drug possession in Queensland is astronomical. Between 2005 and 2016, over 150,000 people were sentenced simply for having drugs - from cannabis to cocaine.
Not only that, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more likely to be charged with drug possession. The laws aren’t just illogical, they are outright discriminatory.
For people who are sentenced, the impacts of having a criminal record are life changing. Criminal records can prevent you from getting jobs and housing. It can prevent you from travelling to certain countries, and applying for loans or insurance are more difficult.
But perhaps the most harmful part of having a criminal record is the stigma that comes with it. It is now well known that individuals with a criminal record experience a lower quality of life due to social rejection, discrimination, and the shame that comes with a record.
The government predicts the new law will prevent almost 17,000 Queenslanders from being prosecuted for drug possession.
And that is only in the first year.
And the majority will never have contact with the criminal justice system again.
Police Minister Mark Ryan has called it “a common-sense approach”.
Not true decriminalisation
However, the new approach is not without caveats.
To be eligible to receive a warning, individuals must not be facing any other criminal charges, and they cannot have been to jail previously for any drug-related offences.
And for those who are eligible, on the fourth offence, police will issue a court notice.
For long-term drug users, the new law is unlikely to prevent them from entering the criminal justice system.
In order for everyone to reap the benefits of this kind of policy, we need to move towards full decriminalisation of drug possession, as recommended by experts in the medical community, and the Queensland Productivity Commission.
Queensland has also become the first state in Australia to legalise pill testing services. Although the name pill testing suggests that these services only test pills, they actually test all kinds of drugs in all forms.
It will include fixed and mobile sites.
The benefits of pill testing services are hard to ignore. They have been wildly successful in Europe, and the recent trials in Canberra were deemed a massive victory. In Canberra, for individuals whose results showed substances other than what was expected, the majority tossed their drugs in the bin.
The trials also found that almost half of the ketamine samples tested did not contain ketamine.
We know that people aren’t going to stop taking drugs. So why not prevent any unnecessary harm and suffering?
Benefits of pill testing
Pill testing services are life-saving services.
In Queensland, illicit drugs cause more deaths each year than road accidents.
We have heard countless stories of young people dying from taking party drugs at festivals and parties. If pill testing had been available, some of these people might still be around today.
And with fentanyl becoming a more pertinent risk in Australia, pill testing will play a crucial role in preventing unnecessary deaths in the future.
Despite rumours that pill testing encourages drug use, in reality, it discourages dangerous drug use. The recent trial in Canberra found that people who had their drugs tested went on to use their drugs more safely.
Will the rest of Australia follow in Queensland's footsteps?
Queensland’s new drug policies are a huge step in the right direction.
Harm reduction is the future, and it’s time for governments to take action.
The battle is far from over, but every step forward is worth celebrating.
A message to other states: if Queensland can do it, you can too.
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