A mother who lost her son to a heroin overdose in the early-1990s has praised the Territory government for its “nation-leading” step forwards in decriminalising small amounts of illicit drugs.
But after more than a quarter of a century advocating for change, she’s warned this is but a small step forward.
That’s a message echoed by those working in the mental health space.
Marion McConnell, a founding member of the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform advocacy group, described yesterday’s news as a “historic moment”.
“Prohibition has not worked. It’s caused so much harm and tragedy and we must make a change – even police must see that,” she said.
“People think drug laws are there for health reasons. But all they have done is create a multi-billion-dollar criminal trade and our young people are the ones who have been sacrificed.”
Ms McConnell is calling for greater education for young people and law enforcement, and better resourcing for health services.
Ms McConnell lost their son in 1992 when he was aged 24.
“He wasn’t a stereotype. He had a full-time job and did well at school. He’d had a book published,” Ms McConnell said.
Her son first overdosed two weeks before his death. At the time, he and the family were “hassled” by law enforcement to give up his dealer, and his mother said he did not receive the health support required.
“Police went to the hospital with him and into his room. He was frightened and discharged himself and went away alone, overdosed and died.”
Ms McConnell has never blamed law enforcement. She said they were just doing their jobs.
But she’s hoping law enforcement will come along on the journey.
ACT Policing continues to hold concerns about the likelihood of these laws leading to increased drug-driving incidents and increased trafficking.
Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan told Region earlier this month he worried about enabling addiction and increasing organised crime.
Above all, he worried about support systems.
“If we don’t have the support services in place, this is not going to work. We’re advocating for support to be available when we come in contact with them.
“If it’s 2 am, there needs to be somewhere we can send these people because at 8 am they’re not going to want that support. They just want another hit of meth so it needs to be a 24/7 response capability.”
On this, Ms McConnell and CPO Gaughan are on the same page.
It’s also backed up by those in the mental health space.
CEO of Mental Health Community Coalition ACT Corinne Dobson welcomed the news of the drug decriminalisation bill.
“Having a situation where people are punished for drugs is counter-productive to them receiving treatment for drug dependency issues and mental health,” she said.
“Both of those are stigmatised and when they occur together, people become isolated and there are flow-on impacts to other areas of their life.”
Ms Dobson said more funding for the sector is needed.
“We need to make sure different parts of the system are talking to one another, especially when helping people with co-occurring issues,” she said.
“It’s not just a health or clinical issue; it’s about providing wraparound support for people.”
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith yesterday pointed to the government’s ongoing $26 million-a-year spend on specialist alcohol, tobacco and other drug treatment and support services.
She said this had been boosted in the recent budget with a further $13 million for harm minimisation, including boosting residential rehabilitation services, delivering more targeted treatments for methamphetamine addiction and establishing a new support service for families and carers of people who use drugs.
When the new laws are enacted in 12 months, anyone caught with drugs under the legal limits will not receive any criminal sanction.; instead, they will either be issued a caution, a $100 fine or be diverted to a treatment program.
Ms Stephen-Smith said yesterday that the next year would be spent implementing oversight arrangements, delivering training for frontline workers, including police, and developing public and targeted communications with ACT Policing, the alcohol and drug sector, academic experts and people with lived experience.