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When even police and prison officers are calling for drug law reform, you know it’s time for our politicians to support change. Burying their heads in the sand will only lead to more young Australians heading to graves or jail cells. There are more than 80,000 drug consumer arrests in Australia each year, but it hasn’t stopped the rise in drug-related deaths, disease, injuries, crimes and social costs. Now Australia21, backed by the YoungA21 Committee, has released a report that asks the question ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’ and the answer is definitely ‘yes’ on both accounts. The report says it’s time to drop criminal charges for personal use and possession and to introduce pill testing, to make drugs safer. It’s pretty amazing – a bunch of mainly old white law enforcers talking about change. Of all the people to be backing reform, these are the least likely. The tide is turning! One of the authors, Mick Palmer, is a former Commissioner of both the Australian Federal Police and the Northern Territory Police. He got together a group of high profile Australians who’d served as police, lawyers, judges, corrective services officers, medical professionals, social workers and researchers, to talk about what needs to be done. “What we now have is badly broken, ineffective and even counterproductive to the harm minimisation aims of Australia’s national illicit drugs policy. “We must be courageous enough to consider a new and different approach,” he said. And the others agreed that evidence from Australia and overseas proves policing isn’t reducing harms or changing drug use habits. The group wants drug use to be treated as a health and social issue instead. “We need to stop killing and criminalising drug users, especially young Australians,” said one of the participants, Dr Alex Wodak, former Director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney from 1982 to 2012 and current President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. Drug users and their families have welcomed the stand. “If I had been given support instead of being jailed I would have spent 20 years as a productive member of the community instead of succumbing to my heroin habit that repeatedly ended me up in prison,” said Kat Armstrong, who has finally gone straight, cleaned up and co-founded the Women’s Justice Network to support other offenders trying to do the same. “I don’t want more kids or anyone to die, or to ruin their lives like I did – we must intervene and help them now, before it’s too late,” she said. “I know, because I lived it.” The Australia21 report recommends: • 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. “The message of the Australia21 report is that while we need to go hard on the real criminals, who only care about profits rather than people, we also need to get real about recreational drug use: it’s not going to disappear,” said Rebecca Bunn, Chair of YoungA21. “It’s time to wake up to the fact that we can’t arrest and imprison our way out of this mess,” she said. At the very least, the report calls for a national policy that allows front line police to ignore the personal use and possession of cannabis and other ‘soft’ drugs. Lots of countries have already realised the sense of dropping criminal charges, including the USA (11+ states), Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ecuador, Armenia, India, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Jamaica. Come on Australia, it’s time to make the change. ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’ is the third in a series of Australia21 reports examining drug law reform. The others are: • ‘The prohibition of illegal drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are letting it happen’ (2012) • ‘Alternatives to prohibition Illicit Drugs: How we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians’ (2012) YouTube link to social video: In addition, as part of its commitment to encouraging young Australians to participate in shaping the nation’s future, Australia21 will later this year launch a resource for Year 7-12 students ‘Smarter About Drugs: A Conversation Pack’, in conjunction with YoungA21 and The Australian Lions Drug Awareness Foundation (ALDAF).

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