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More than 30 of Australia’s health and social service organisations and policy leaders have agreed to work together to raise public awareness that current Australian drug laws, although well-intentioned, create or worsen a wide range of health and social harms.

The prominent group participated in an Australia21 Roundtable, held this week in Victoria’s Parliament House. They addressed the evidence that a prohibition and law enforcement approach is not reducing illegal drug use, but is instead causing many adverse outcomes across our communities.

“Arrest and prosecution often involves the loss of employment, housing and family and community support. This can spiral into further crime, but also increase family homelessness, domestic violence, child protection interventions, mental health issues and suicide rates,” said the Roundtable convenor, Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, a leading epidemiologist and founding Director of Australia21.

“Meanwhile, prohibition and the threat of criminal penalties drives drug users away from the help they need and puts the production, distribution and control of illicit drugs into the hands of criminals,” said Em. Professor Douglas.

Health and social service providers have been witnessing a rise in the human and financial costs of the current policies for individuals, families and the nation as a whole, according to Laurence Alvis, who leads alcohol and other drug services in Melbourne for Uniting Vic Tas.

“There is no question that Australia’s drug policy settings create and worsen social problems beyond the drugs field. Uniting regularly deals with people experiencing multiple social issues in our alcohol and other drug programs. Our experience is that drug policy can also have a negative impact on their experiences of issues such as mental health, family violence and homelessness,” said Mr Alvis.

There was concern among the Roundtable participants that the current policy of allocating 60% of Australian government drug budgets to policing and prisons has failed to produce improvements, especially as highly effective treatment and harm reduction strategies have been chronically underfunded.

“By prioritising treatment, we could reduce the negative impact of focusing on criminalisation rather than harm reduction. We see the failure of the current approach in the length of waiting lists for services like ours. It means that service funders focus on short episodes of treatment, when we know that treatment over a longer term is more likely to produce lasting outcomes,” said Mr Alvis.

Evidence supports drug law reform

International evidence from countries including Portugal, where drug use has been redefined as a health and social issue rather than one of criminal justice, shows a change in approach can produce better social outcomes more quickly and at lower cost, potentially removing the need for downstream interventions and related spending.

The extent to which adverse social conditions and disadvantage actually increase problematic drug use also needs far more research in Australia.

The Roundtable considered how multi-sectoral collaboration might encourage changes to federal and state policy settings that would support, instead of impede, the stated aim of Australia’s National Drug Strategy: ‘To build safe, healthy and resilient Australian communities through preventing and minimising alcohol, tobacco and other drug-related health, social, cultural and economic harms among individuals, families and communities.’

“It is clear the prevalence and seriousness of a wide scope of social problems in diverse sectors would be reduced through better responses to the use and abuse of illegal, pharmaceutical and other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco,” said former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer, an Emeritus Director of Australia21.

“The War on Drugs approach was well intended but failed disastrously in Australia and other countries. While unregulated manufacture and trafficking should remain serious criminal offences, Australia should adopt a more rational, more cost-effective, evidence-based and human rights approach, including decriminalisation of personal possession of drugs and better treatment options. We can’t punish people into getting better.”

You can read the Roundtable discussion paper by clicking here.

Changing attitudes

In 2017 a prominent group of serving and former senior police, prison officers, lawyers and AOD experts put their names to Australia21’s groundbreaking report Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?, launched by former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett and former NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr.

The report, which came out of an Australia21 Roundtable in 2016, made 13 key recommendations, aimed at:

  • minimising harms for drug users and those around them,

  • reducing the use of untested, unregulated drugs in unsafe environments,

  • providing more health and social programs to reduce drug-related problems,

  • reducing and even eliminating criminal control of the drug market,

  • reducing the prison population and its associated progress to hard drug use,

  • supporting police and the judicial system to focus law enforcement more usefully.

It followed on from two other high-level Australia21 Roundtables and reports:

The fourth national Roundtable was held in Victoria’s Parliament House on Wednesday 21st March 2018. A Joint Statement on the outcomes was released by the participants, calling on Australia’s federal, state and territory governments to treat drug use primarily as a health and social issue and to remove criminal sanctions for personal use and possession.

A full report and set of recommendations is now being prepared, but Australia21 needs your help. We’re aiming to raise $16,000 for the production, publication and printing, so donate now by clicking on the yellow button.

Donations are tax deductible.

Your contribution, small or large, will help us influence drug law reform.

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