It's Time for a Summit on Drug Decriminalisation

In describing in her findings arising from a wide ranging inquest into six fatal opioid overdose events, current illicit drug policy as “futile” and likely to exacerbate drug related harm, the NSW Deputy State Coroner, Harriet Grahame, urged the NSW Government to have the courage to commit to conducting a summit on drug decriminalisation.

On any reading of her findings, it seems clear that these are opinions directly driven by the facts as presented at the inquests and the coroner’s frustration, in the face of this evidence, at the continuing refusal or inability of the government to do more to stem the frequency of overdoses across the State.

I share her frustration.

No one is suggesting that dealing more effectively with our prevailing illicit drug culture is easy, but the evidence of the failings and shortcomings in what we are now doing, and have done for a long time, is overwhelming. Surely, even “blind Freddy” can see that we must be prepared to try new and fresh approaches if we are to reduce the harms being caused to young Australians and improve the quality of the outcomes we are achieving.

Standing still or treading water should not be an acceptable option to a compassionate and sophisticated society. Not only should we expect, we should demand, better of our elected governments.

I am not, and never have been, an advocate of drug use but I am a ferocious advocate for reducing the trauma and damage caused by drug use and for preventing the needless loss of the lives of people who take drugs.

We must be prepared to accept the reality of the world in which we are living if we are to improve it.

Decisions Based on Evidence, not Ideology

We must be prepared to honestly assess the evidence, both of our current and historic efforts to curb drug use and minimise harms under our prohibitionist mantle and of the alternate initiatives and approaches that have been introduced, with increasingly positive results, in a growing range of countries across Europe and an increasing number of States in the U.S.

Certainly the coroner did not lack the courage to urge the government to drastically overhaul its treatment of drug users. The government needs to have the courage – and, dare I say, the decency – to positively respond.

Having said this, I believe it is important to recognise that there are no “bad guys” in the illicit drugs debate, only “concerned guys”. There are no silver bullet remedies for what is a complex health and social problem and it is highly unlikely that everyone will be satisfied, no matter what decisions are made and what future pathways are chosen.

But governments are elected to govern and as voters we have a right to expect our elected officials to govern fairly and honestly and to make decisions based on the evidence, not simply on ideology – or, even more disappointingly, on fear; to be driven by a genuine desire to make life within our communities as safe and secure as is reasonably possible, not simply by a desire to get re-elected.

It is also clear, though, that one size does not fit all. Families grieving at the loss of loved ones from a drug overdose have differing views themselves. Some have become crusaders for pill testing or wider drug reform, whilst others are strongly of the opinion that such moves would only aggravate an already serious problem. Equally some people with current or previous drug addiction issues support reform whilst others believe such moves will make the pathway to continued use easier and steepen the slippery slope to addiction.

But, despite these differences, no one is suggesting that what we have is good enough.


Commitment to Action

I support Coroner Grahame’s call for a drug summit, not – in my personal case – as a basis necessarily for decriminalisation but as a basis for honest and open dialogue, discussion and brain-storming of current policy and a commitment to action which will improve the outcomes we achieve; not a talk fest but rather an ACTION FEST.

Who would not want to do so?

In any such dialogue we must be prepared to personalise the despair and suffering that accompanies each drug-related death – to face and stare down a parent’s worst nightmare and ask ourselves, are we doing enough? Is there more that could and should be done? If so, how might we achieve it?

Angela Mollard wrote a powerful opinion piece in the 3 March 2019 Sunday Telegraph, in which she explained the impact of the decision of a father in Britain over 20 years ago to publish a photo of his daughter, Leah, who was dying of an ecstasy drug overdose. In part Ms Mollard said: “As his daughter lay in a hospital bed, slack-tongued and brain dead, a web of tubes coiled ominously over her face and chest, he decided to take a photograph of her and release it in the hope that other lives might be saved. The next day Leah’s life support was switched off. And that day I decided I would never take recreational drugs under any circumstances.”

The reality though, as Angela Mollard said, is that nearly 25 years after Leah’s death ecstasy is still Australia’s party drug of choice – and it is being taken increasingly in purer form. And in many instances an ecstasy pill can be purchased for the price “of a flat white”.

The reality also is that such drugs are purchased from a totally unregulated marketplace in which the quality, toxicity and level of contamination of the drug are unknown and – without external intervention – are unable to be identified.

Surely as a society we are not happy with this and would like to examine what steps can be taken or at least considered to improve the safety of young people who choose to take such drugs.

Surely no one believes Leah “played the game and should take the knocks”.

We can do better – we must do better and the best way to decide what action is most likely to have best effect is to rigorously debate the options. This is precisely what my idea of a drug summit would do.

Australia has had too many Leahs and we should be honour bound to do whatever is needed to prevent more.

Mick Palmer is a former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. This article is republished from John Menadue's Pearls and Irritations blog.

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