Rethinking drug policy

By Karin Derkley

This article was originally published on the Law Institute Journal website on 31 July 2018. It has been republished here with permission of the author. 

Drug sniffer dogs at music festivals might do more harm than good, a forum exploring the implications of a recent inquiry into drug law reform in Victoria heard this week.

And laws preventing people from distributing sterile needles among drug users was another measure that had failed in its attempt to combat drug use, the discussion held by Monash Law’s Australian Centre for Justice Innovation (ACJI) and its Law, Health and Wellbeing group was told.

The inquiry report had challenged conventional wisdom about laws intended to prevent alcohol and drug related harms, Monash Law Associate Professor and director of the Springvale Monash Legal Service Kate Seear said. It found that the nature of drug harms was complex, and was sometimes caused by the laws themselves.

Sniffer dogs at music festivals, for example, often prompted festival goers to consume all their drugs at once to avoid detection, buy drugs inside the event from an unknown source, or use more harmful drugs such as GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) that are thought to be less detectable by dogs.

Similarly, it was not drug use in itself that transmitted blood borne diseases, but lack of access to sterile equipment, Ms Seear said. Laws that prohibited people from passing on sterile equipment to their peers were hampering efforts to stop the transmission of diseases and should be changed, she said.

The inquiry into drug law reform was tabled in March and contains 50 recommendations for reform to Victoria’s drug laws and policies, including peer sharing of sterile needles and other injecting equipment.

It recommended diverting people caught possessing illicit drugs to treatment programs rather than the criminal justice system, and called to expand drug courts in Victoria.

Reason Party leader Fiona Patten, who called for the inquiry in 2015, said the inquiry report was a significant achievement that had given rise to majority agreement on ways to treat illicit drug use.

Former commissioner of Northern Territory police and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer commended the report, which he described as “wonderful” and as “taking us in the right direction”.

He said the prohibitionist approach had “failed and failed miserably”.

“Despite significant arrests and seizing huge amounts of different types of illicit drugs, the end result is that at the coalface it doesn’t make any difference. Price doesn’t vary and supply doesn’t vary, and we don’t do much about diminishing demand.

“We really need to look at different ways of doing business. We simply cannot keep arresting and imprisoning our way out of this.”

In Portugal, a shift to a health based approach to drugs had resulted in a 60 per cent increase in the numbers of people seeking treatment for drugs, the report found. Drug related deaths have more than halved in Portugal since 2008, and at 5.8 deaths per million people is well below Australia’s rate of 75 deaths per million.

Featured image by Vishnu R Nair on Unsplash

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