Australia21 has launched its ground-breaking new report exposing the health and social harms created or worsened by Australia’s current drug laws.

It’s powerfully titled, We all pay the price: Our drug laws are tearing apart Australia’s social fabric, as well as harming drug users and their families.

The national report is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between experts in drug treatment and community welfare, brought together by Australia21 in a Roundtable summit. They included representatives from the Kings Cross MSIC, Uniting ReGen, Anglicare Australia, the Noffs Foundation, the ACT Council of Social Services, the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, the Penington Institute, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, the ACU Institute of Child Protection Studies, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and high profile addiction specialists, sociologists and criminologists, as well as participants with lived experience of drug use and imprisonment.

Australia21 is proud to have brought together this group — the legitimacy of their voices cannot be ignored.

“Local and international evidence shows that punishing people is not an effective way to reduce drug use; criminal prosecution can actually increase drug use and crime, as well as poverty, social disadvantage, unemployment, homelessness, family violence, child protection interventions, mental illness, stigma, discrimination and suicide,” said Australia21 Director Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas.

“The prohibition of drugs perversely promotes criminal markets, encourages the growth of prison populations, deters people from seeking help for problematic drug use and damages the lives of many Australian families, with adverse impacts across the whole community,” he said.

The report finds Australian governments have failed to take into account that many policies affecting people who use drugs are not considered drug policy, and many specific drug policies have large effects outside the drug domain. They have also ignored the evidence that many people who use drugs will not experience harm unless they come in contact with the criminal justice system.

Call for a new approach

The Roundtable participants are calling on the health and social sectors to work together to engage broad community support for the removal of criminal penalties for personal use and possession, in order to reduce the health, social and economic costs of drug harms ultimately borne by all Australians.

Here are some of their expert views:

“A large number of social outcomes could be improved rapidly if we had law reform in the drug area. I cannot stress strongly enough that many of the social disadvantages with which we deal are linked with the disadvantages and serious consequences of the operation of our drug laws.”Kasy Chambers, CEO Anglicare Australia.

“There is no question that Australia’s drug policy settings create and exacerbate social problems beyond the drugs field, narrowly defined.

“There is no question that Australia’s drug policy settings create and exacerbate social problems beyond the drugs field, narrowly defined. ReGen regularly encounters people experiencing multiple social issues, with drug policy negatively impacting not just on their experience as a drug user but their experiences of mental health issues, family violence and homelessness.”Laurence Alvis, EO Uniting ReGen (AOD Treatment and Education Service, Uniting Vic & Tas).

“Regardless of our views about drug use or people who use drugs, we all want to see those with problematic use be able to access care — yet demonising and criminalising them creates an enormous barrier to treatment and support.”Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.

“The shame, stigma and marginalisation which goes hand in hand with prohibition drug policies stops many families from speaking out or seeking help. Contrary to popular belief it is not ‘bad’ kids who use drugs, but it could be anyone’s child.”Marion McConnell OAM, Founding member Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.

“My overall view is yes, we can impact positively on apparently intractable social problems through improved social policy to address the currently illegal drugs. The harder question is “What will shift our country from the current state of complacency and resistance to a state of willingness to adopt harm reducing, life affirming laws and policies across all the domains outlined?” Susan Helyar, Director ACT Council of Social Services.

The Roundtable participants are concerned also about the diversion of scarce human and financial resources from effective management of health and social issues into ineffective drug law enforcement.

“Once in the criminal system, continued misuse of drugs and alcohol will, for many, lead to repeated incarceration, especially where long term, chronic drug use has led to criminal behaviour to support a habit. Cumulative trauma and institutionalisation impacts dramatically on an individual’s ability to gain control over their drug use and rebuild their lives upon release, if it is not addressed early.”Carol Nikakis, CEO Victorian Association for the Care & Resettlement of Offenders.

“Massive expansion of the correctional facilities, with a fourfold increase in the national prison population compared to national population growth over the last 20 years, includes massive financial and social costs to the states and territories.”Professor Peter Norden AO, Fellow Australian & New Zealand Society of Criminology.

“I spent 10 years in prison because I used drugs and I committed crime to support my drug habit. Until people are educated in local rural and regional areas as well as in the cities, and until the legislators and the people who have the power actually ‘get it’ and understand what and why people do what they do, and change the legislation, you are not going to get any kind of drug law reform.”Kat Armstrong, Lawyer and Co-founder Women In Prison Advocacy Network (now Women’s Justice Network).