Decriminalising all drugs isn’t as popular as legalising cannabis
On 10 May 2018, the Select Committee on a Northern Territory Harm Reduction Strategy for Reducing Addictive Behaviours (The Select Committee) was created in an effort to fight addiction. The Select Committee explored other nations and how they address the matter, in an effort to determine what may work best here in Australia.
The findings, so far, have been quite interesting. What’s more interesting is how quiet the results have been kept, which is uncharacteristic in today’s trending cannabis climate.
Globally, cannabis use has become more accepted. Perhaps governments around the world have realised that the drug simply isn’t going anywhere, and public opinion has increased significantly. As a result, several nations have either legalised cannabis, decriminalised it, or embraced a policy of turning a blind eye to its use.
- Last year, Canada became the second country, after Uruguay, to fully legalise recreational cannabis.
- In the United States, 33 states and the District of Columbia (DC) have legalised the drug for medical use, 10 of which — along with (DC) — have legalised it for recreational use.
- Further, several European countries have legalised cannabis for medical use, while others such as Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal, have gone even further by either decriminalising its recreational use, providing designated areas where it can be used without consequence, or simply ignoring its use.
- The Asia-Pacific region concurs with this movement, with Australia legalising cannabis for medical use in 2016.
- Also, New Zealand legalised the drug for medical use a few months ago in December, and has scheduled a referendum for next year, 2020, for legalising its recreational use.
But an even bolder move is brewing in the Northern Territory, where a movement to decriminalise all drugs — not just cannabis — is ongoing. One might wonder, given the trending cannabis legalisation climate, why this news isn’t gaining as much traction. Perhaps the subject itself is the reason — decriminalisation of all drugs just isn’t that popular.
The Select Committee’s purpose
The purpose of The Select Committee is supposed to be to search for ways to reduce addiction in Australia. More specifically, it is established in support of a proposal to decriminalize drug possession and use in the Northern Territory. Not just cannabis, all drugs.
The plan came about after Jeff Collins, the committee chair and assistant minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Services, visited Portugal and witnessed, first hand, the positive results of that country’s drug decriminalisation policy.
Portugal’s drug decriminalisation policy
Portugal’s experiment started in 2001, and has become a permanent fixture with significant results, transforming what was once one of the most crime ridden parts of Europe into a safe haven. Its success is evident in the fact that the policy has outlasted several administrations with different views of how drug use should be addressed.
Portugal’s policy avoids imprisonment of drug users. Instead, such users will be issued warnings or fines, or they’ll be summoned to appear before a tribunal consisting of a doctor, a lawyer, and counselor. In addition, governmental outreach programs provide drug paraphernalia such as syringes and needles, tin foils and more, in exchange for used needles and other harmful, reused equipment to drug users and addicts. They also provide them with psychological and social support.
Portugal once had the highest rate of HIV infections in Europe, and as a result of its decriminalisation policy, this is no longer the case. In fact, the HIV rate crashed from 104.2 new cases per million in the year 2000, to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. Also, according to Collins, overdose deaths in Portugal have reduced “from about 400 per year to about 40 per year”. Drug use has also reduced significantly.
Such progress is understandably contagious, and Collins wants the same for the Northern Territory. As a result, The Select Committee was formed, to explore a similar path and discover just how exactly to implement it.
So far so good
The proposal for decriminalisation doesn’t exempt drug dealers — such traffickers will remain in violation of the law, and face imprisonment. Instead, it calls for treatment and education for users and those in possession of small amounts, in an effort to rehabilitate them for the greater good of society.
According to Collins, Canada provides the best example for Australia, given its societal similarities. Canada was thus one of the nations included in the study for the The Select Committee, to help determine the correct path towards decriminalisation.
The review will come to a conclusion on August 31, 2019, but an interim report was released this month. Its findings, so far, are quite positive towards the issue of decriminalisation, based on reviews of other nations’ results of similar policies — namely Portugal and Canada — and local public commentary.
Of all the elements included in the proposal as a result of the review, two seem the most interesting so far:
- Amend the Misuse of Drug Act to permit clear, uniform decriminalisation; and
- Remove existing inconsistencies in police discretion;
The Select Committee’s interim report suggests alternatives to incarceration, expansion of NSP (Network Service Providers) services to ensure safe and clean drug paraphernalia, family-inclusive treatment, and other harm reduction initiatives. Other initiatives include workforce training in cases where drug use began as a result of trauma, and also pill-testing endeavors where users can have their drugs or pills checked for harmful substances and educated on them before they use them.
Decriminalisation of all drugs is, in fact, a radical move. However, it is hard to argue with the philosophy after evidence of its success in Portugal. Some critics do have a theory for that though — they claim that Portugal’s success wasn’t the result of decriminalisation alone, but rather the result of a significant cultural shift. They claim that the country’s citizens at large stopped viewing addicts as scourge, but rather as people who needed help and in turn offered such help.
However, this argument supports the idea of decriminalisation, which is an effort to promote drug education and treatment as opposed to punishment for what is quite obviously a health problem. It is also aimed at reducing the dangers and harms of uneducated drug use — the spread of diseases and overdose deaths. These reductions are a reality in Portugal, and cannot be attributed to anything but its decriminalisation policies. Thus, such a policy can only be welcome, where the penal incarceration of addicts has proven to be a failed policy.
There are challenges to the implementation of this proposal though, if accepted. Chief among them is the expense. The Select Committee has admitted to monetary shortages that make the idea of building treatment facilities quite impossible, and funding providers is also a feat. This, perhaps, is the most significant challenge of all, and it must be overcome before any real change can be implemented in reality.