Recently a lengthy 640-page Inquiry into Drug Raw Reform was tabled in the Victorian parliament. The report looked at how effective the state's current laws were in regards to dealing with drugs, and called for a more effective response centred around health and safety.
The committee looked at not only other Australian state and territories, but travelled overseas to other jurisdictions, such as Geneva, Lisbon and Vancouver, to see how the positive impact of their drug law reforms could be adopted in Victoria.
Inquiry into Drug Law Reform
The report considered referring those who were caught with small quantities of drugs to rehabilitation, treating addiction health issue and looking at 'back of house' testing where police, health professionals and harm reduction organisations work together to identify dangerous substances and alert the community where deemed appropriate.
In total, the report included 50 recommendations and received more than 230 submissions and although it was comprehensive and reflected the community's attitudes towards drug policy, it made politically acceptable recommendations and could have gone much further.
Recent Drug Related Incidents in Victoria
In the last decade, we have seen a rapid incline in the amount of drug related overdoses in Victoria, with the number of deaths now surpassing road crash-related fatalities. Since 2010 the frequency of overdose deaths has climbed up almost 40 per cent, reaching 477 deaths in 2016.
Australia now has the highest use of ecstasy per capita in the world and frequently we are seeing sets of mass drug overdoses and overdose-related deaths at festivals and dance events around the state. It was only in January this year that nine people were hospitalised after a mass drug incident at a dance event at Festival Hall.
In January last year, there was a mass overdose of 20 people where three people died from a bad batch of pills went around Chapel Street. Later that month dozens of people hospitalised after overdosing on the synthetic substance GHB at a dance event at Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
Criticisms of the Report
The idea of 'back of house' pill testing is a progressive step, however one of the criticism by harm reduction advocates is that to ensure the most amount of harm is minimised, it should have pushed to allow proper pill testing at festivals, rather than rely on someone ingesting harmful substances for the public to be alerted of dangerous substances.
Another criticism of the report is that although it looked at legalising the adult use of cannabis, after sitting for weeks, taking expert testimony and travelling the world to places such as Colorado and Canada who are about to legalise all cannabis in June, what the committee came up with was for another committee to look at the issue.
The Current Model
Despite the efforts of law enforcement, drug overdose and misuse still occur. The current model of keeping people safe is ineffective and there continues to be a lack of understanding when it comes to addiction, which is a health issue, not a criminal one. The prohibition is failing and exploring new drug policies, which are grounded in evidence, compassion, health and safety should be a top priority.
Millions of dollars and public money are being spent implementing drug laws and sending people to prison, yet it has little impact in regards to the availability, supply and demand. It has instead contributed to black market crime and more harm such as drug related overdoses and deaths.
By reframing the problems associated with drugs as a health issue, is not suggesting that we go soft on drugs, but instead take a smarter approach. It is an extremely complex issue that is neither exclusively a criminal issue, or a health issue, but a combination of the two.
Drug Law Reform and Overseas Evidence
Evidence shows that the prominence of law enforcement to reduce the supply of drugs in the community is not having the impact intended. The drug market is more capricious than ever with new and more dangerous drugs appearing, as well as the re-emergence of old drugs.
In parts of the world where they have experimented with alternative measures to dealing with drug use, there has been significant improvement. In places where they have imposed the tough on crime stance, drug problems remain the same or become increasingly worse.
Overseas where they have legalised marijuana, disaster has not materialised and for the most part, people have welcomed the change responsibly. It has meant that money hasn't been going into the black market or fuelling criminal enterprises, and that it has been taxed and gone back into treatment services.
If we look at countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal where they have decriminalised or legalised drugs, the evidence has shown to be successful. These countries have a much lower problem use when it comes to drugs, compared to countries like Australia, the UK and US which are all tough on crime.
End the War on Drugs
The war on drugs has been lost and despite spending billions on locking people up, people are still using illicit drugs and dying from them. It's simplistic to think we can completely eradicate drugs, but if we acknowledge the failure of the current system, and adopt a more sensible approach to drug policy then we can effectively address what is in fact a public health problem in our society.
Carolyn Cage, is a Freelance Journalist based in Melbourne Australia.