Decriminalisation isn’t legalisation, so let’s stop pretending it is

Dominic Giannini 21 December 2020 39

Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson will introduce the legislation in February. Photo: Facebook.

It didn’t take long after Labor backbencher Michael Pettersson announced he wanted to partially decriminalise a range of drugs in the ACT for the disinformation to flow.

Mr Pettersson will introduce a private member’s Bill in February to give police officers the discretion to fine people caught carrying small quantities of drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA instead of punishing them through the criminal justice system.

The Bill will not come to a final vote until the end of 2021 at the earliest.

It is now time for sensible debate on the issue as opposed to a chorus from idealogues.


READ MORE: Pettersson puts cocaine, heroin, MDMA decriminalisation on the agenda


Within hours, the ACT Young Liberals put up a post on Facebook and Twitter shaming Mr Pettersson, saying that “ACT Labor will legalise heroin, ice and MDMA”, complete with a grim reaper image.

ACT Young Liberal social media posts about drug decriminalisation. Photo: Facebook.

The post directly contradicted a speech given by then Shadow Attorney-General Jeremy Hanson before the election calling for a measured, reasoned argument during the public health debate.

“I think we should all resist the temptation as we proceed with this debate … for one side of politics to say, from my side, that Mr Pettersson wants to legalise all drugs, and from the Labor Party’s point of view to say that the Liberal Party wants to roll out a Philippine-style drug policy,” he told the Assembly before the election.

“I do not think that would be helpful.”


READ ALSO: “Modern-day leper”: How drug policy is isolating Canberrans from help


Drug policy debates are emotional by nature, social media comments about incoming crime waves and junkie takeovers proved this.

But in this instance, it is important to remember that the maximum criminal penalty of two years’ jail remains in the new legislation if someone is caught with a quantity of drugs above the Commonwealth Government’s drug trafficking threshold. The Bill only provides police officers with another avenue to deal with drug abuse if they think diverting a person away from the criminal justice system would be beneficial in the circumstances.

It does not “allow” for the possession – or taking – of drugs.

Not only does the diversion reduce the associated costs of policing and detention (the daily cost of “maintaining” a detainee at the AMC was almost $300 in 2017/18), but people who avoid the criminal justice system are less likely to engage in future criminal activities.

It also reduces the strain on the courts and removes the negative impact criminal records and detention can have on individuals and their families.

Calvary Hospital’s emergency consultant David Caldicott put it best when he said: “It is an absolute delight to see legislators trying something new in our approach to drugs because, honestly, the drugs policy environment in Australia is utterly jaded.”

Professor David Caldicott

Professor David Caldicott was instrumental in running the ACT’s pill testing trials. Photo: File.

“We have been conditioned to believe, in the same way with alcohol in the 1920s and 30s that alcohol is a terrible thing that should never be used, that all drugs are as well. Decriminalisation is quite clearly associated with reduced harm.

“The principle is strong and any argument to suggest that it is intellectually or ideologically flawed is not based in science. My job is to keep people alive, not to ensure that they die to act as a lesson to others.”


READ ALSO: Pill testing, safe injecting room support jumps in ACT as drug use goes up: AIHW


The legislation is not perfect, Mr Pettersson himself admitted that.

Decriminalisation is no silver bullet, Professor Caldicott admitted that too.

“To assume that the success that has occurred overseas will be immediately replicable in Canberra, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful about that but there are also reasons to proceed with caution,” Professor Caldicott said.

“Australians have no sense of moderation where alcohol and drug consumption is concerned.”

But scientific best practice suggests it will be better at reducing harm than zealous enforcement.

“A drug-free Australia is nonsense, it is magical thinking. My children want a unicorn for Christmas but they cannot have that because it does not exist and neither does any drug-free jurisdiction in the world,” Professor Caldicott said.

“What you can determine is how much harm the drugs cause the jurisdiction in which you live. If it is tailored to the ACT environment, there is every reason to expect that drug use would diminish.”

Greens Drug Harm Minimisation spokesperson Johnathan Davis used the announcement to call for an inquiry into alcohol, tobacco and drug harm minimisation, saying the Territory needed a comprehensive suite of policies to tackle the effects of drug dependency in our community.

Policies also need to include educating the broader public about what the changes mean and the benefits of the Bill, he said.

“I think there still is a level of confusion in the community about something being illegal and decriminalisation, so that is a responsibility on lawmakers and on the government to make it really clear what the two things mean,” he said.

“There is a sense from some in the community that they want justice when a wrong is done. I would argue that we owe the suffering person justice by providing them with good health care.

“[The comments on social media] tell me that there are a lot of people who want to have this conversation, who are ready to have this conversation, who have varying degrees of experience to inform the conversation.”

People are ready to have the conversation, let’s just keep the debate honest.


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39 Responses to Decriminalisation isn’t legalisation, so let’s stop pretending it is
Acton Acton 7:28 am 23 Dec 20

What is the interests of big time drug importers, distributors and dealers? Would they be in favour of decriminalising their products? Small fines for users instead of potentially jailing them will reduce the risk of use and definitely increase demand and profits. So if I was a drug importer/distributor/dealer I would be all in favour of decriminalisation. But of course would not cite my own self interest, rather other factors like client/user welfare to dupe naive and gullible legislators into acting for me.

franky22 franky22 5:47 pm 21 Dec 20

In the 1970’s we were having arguments like this over marijuana. Look at the USA, $billions spent on enforcement, millions of people jailed then they finally woke up & now you can buy it over the counter.

ssek ssek 12:26 pm 21 Dec 20

You’re right, it’s not legalisation. It is however tacit approval for people to use drugs that have a proven track record of incredible damage to the user and everybody around them.

And anybody citing the Portuguese model as some kind of great success has obviously not bothered to look at any objective analysis of it. It does not decrease drug use, it does not increase successful rehabilitation. It changes the crime statistics only by not criminally charging drug users.

If anything, we should be looking at much harsher penalties for possession of things like heroin and ice.

    Michael JF Michael JF 3:51 am 22 Dec 20

    don’t group ice and heroin togethor.
    heroin is just morphine which is fully organic its from the poppy flower and is the most effective pain relief medicine ever know to man, aswell as the most ancient medicine known to man with 7000 years of recorded use.

    ssek ssek 10:47 am 22 Dec 20

    Yes, and methamphetamine also has medical uses. That does not mean it is not misused and horribly addictive.

Ivan Fedrow Ivan Fedrow 10:35 am 20 Dec 20

🖕 hard drugs

Steve Frame Steve Frame 7:52 pm 19 Dec 20

Putting people in jail for drug use does not stop drug use. Spend the money on rehabilitation.

    Greg Oakes Greg Oakes 1:33 am 20 Dec 20

    Steve Frame well said. Drug abuse is a health issue, not a criminal issue.

Luke Daly Luke Daly 7:48 pm 19 Dec 20

i have an emotional point of view that must be heard.. Alcohol is a drug

Cheryl Thuillier Cheryl Thuillier 6:47 pm 19 Dec 20

Don'y legalize drugs, otherwise you put peoples future down the toilet and flush them. So NO!!!!!

    Shane Phoenix Shane Phoenix 7:08 pm 19 Dec 20

    Did you read the article. Decriminalisation is not legalisation. This is what people need to grasp so we can have an educated and informed debate.

    John Hamers John Hamers 7:25 am 20 Dec 20

    Shane Phoenix that’s never going to happen unfortunately because people don’t read they assume like above

    Matt Riley Matt Riley 11:32 am 21 Dec 20

    How has saying NO worked so far?

    Stuart Browne Stuart Browne 10:55 pm 21 Dec 20

    Cheryl Thuillier your speaking from experience? Or just what others told you?

    Enjoy the vax you sheeple

    Cheryl Thuillier Cheryl Thuillier 5:21 pm 22 Dec 20

    Stuart Browne.🖕

Robert Hawes Robert Hawes 5:52 pm 19 Dec 20

Those that argue for the status quo do not have good, honest arguments. So be prepared for lies, ignorance and scare tactics from these people.

Lorraine Marsh Lorraine Marsh 5:48 pm 19 Dec 20

How many drugs do people want?

Greg Oakes Greg Oakes 4:49 pm 19 Dec 20

Alcohol and gambling cause more social and physical damage.

    Peter Bee Peter Bee 4:58 pm 19 Dec 20

    Greg Oakes no one disagreeing but what is your point?

    Jeremy Thomas Jeremy Thomas 5:15 pm 19 Dec 20

    Greg that could also be an argument for no decriminalising. Personally, I’m not sure what the right answer is.

    Steve Ross Steve Ross 5:42 pm 19 Dec 20

    Greg Oakes , so it’s a good idea to let more social evils loose. 🙄

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 6:37 pm 19 Dec 20

    Greg Oakes I agree. The point is the hypocrisy - while alcohol is not only widely advertised and available but even celebrated, we treat people who use other forms of recreational drugs as criminals.

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 6:38 pm 19 Dec 20

    Steve Ross is there any evidence that with proper controls people couldn’t enjoy other drugs in the same way as other people are currently allowed to enjoy alcohol? All the bad effects of drugs come from criminalisation. If you criminalised tobacco, overnight there would be a black market, addicts committing crimes etc.

    April Littrell April Littrell 7:11 pm 19 Dec 20

    Greg Oakes but it does wonders for our economy!

    Greg Oakes Greg Oakes 7:17 pm 19 Dec 20

    April Littrell sad but true... and the political donations keep rolling in!

    Steve Ross Steve Ross 10:39 pm 19 Dec 20

    Anura Samara as if drunk and drugged drivers aren’t dangerous enough now! 👎🏿

    Anura Samara Anura Samara 11:52 pm 19 Dec 20

    Steve Ross so maybe we should criminalise alcohol too?! My point is the law should treat all drugs the same.

    Nell Feneck Nell Feneck 10:29 am 20 Dec 20

    Greg Oakes rubbish - they all cause the same dysfunction poverty

    Nell Feneck Nell Feneck 10:31 am 20 Dec 20

    Anura Samara you really have no idea 🤦🏽‍♀️🤦🏽‍♀️🤦🏽‍♀️

    Greg Oakes Greg Oakes 11:21 am 20 Dec 20

    Nell Feneck agreed, but the solution for these shouldn’t be criminalising the users, it should be a health initiative. Turning people into “criminals” just broadens and deepens the dysfunction.

Geoffrey Bell Geoffrey Bell 4:35 pm 19 Dec 20

So more people hanging out the front of Woolies after a few coins to feed the habit.

    Annette Schneider Annette Schneider 5:34 pm 19 Dec 20

    How do you know that's what they want? They could just want food or a place to stay.

    Peter Norton Peter Norton 5:40 pm 19 Dec 20

    Geoffrey Bell decriminalisation sends people who use drugs to health services that can help them stop, rather than jail or a life of poverty due to having criminal record.

    Geoffrey Bell Geoffrey Bell 6:04 pm 19 Dec 20

    Peter, if i catch anyone in my house looking for coins, they will be going to the local health services for sure. Other wise i am pretty relaxed and sweet with people what ever the situation they are in.

    Geoffrey Bell Geoffrey Bell 6:10 pm 19 Dec 20

    Annette Schneider Sure i agree that they maybe after food or a place. But after a couple of months you kind of get to know the person face. How come the local government isn't looking into helping them get back on there feet.

    David Murn David Murn 6:56 pm 19 Dec 20

    Geoffrey Bell Because the current system isn't about helping people get on their feet, but handing out penalties. A new system, would no doubt provide help and support.

    Katy Did Katy Did 9:21 am 20 Dec 20

    David Murn or maybe they don’t want ‘to get back on their feet’

    Hannaan Ahmed Hannaan Ahmed 10:53 am 20 Dec 20

    Geoffrey Bell The decriminalisation model does exactly that, in order to deal with the high rates of heroin usage, Portugal decriminalised all drugs nationally in 2001 and that has resulted in an 80% drop in heroin usage and the lowest youth drug use statistics in the western European region. Decriminalisation works because it treats addiction as a health/social issue rather than a criminal one.

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