27 September 2023

Letter from the Editor: whose harm are we reducing with drug law changes?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Police now won’t necessarily respond to calls from venue owners about public drug taking. Photo: File.

One of those odd moments happened a week or two ago when the rest of the country caught up with the fact the ACT had significantly changed laws around personal possession of illicit drugs.

The rest of Australia loves nothing better than to paint Canberra as a haven for wild social experiments, so the speculation about Canberra as a destination for drug-fuelled weekend binges and bikie conventions fits into that narrative comfortably, even if it’s not completely accurate.

But while we’re arguing about how to best manage drug users, what about the businesses impacted by these changes? Whose harm is actually being reduced?

The new laws, coming into effect on 28 October, are predicated on harm reduction. From that date, a person in the ACT may be issued a ‘simple drug offence notice’ if they are caught in possession of 1.5 grams of cocaine, amphetamine, ice or ecstasy, five doses of LSD or 1 gram of heroin.

Only drug possession is decriminalised, which means it is still an offence to supply drugs. Under the act, the drugs will be confiscated and the person will be issued a $100 fine or directed to attend an assessment and harm reduction session.

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The changes are intended to recognise illicit drug use as a medical and social issue rather than a criminal act.

There are two broad kinds of drug users in the ACT. The first are vulnerable people with complex co-morbidities, including mental and physical health issues, insecure housing and the consequences of trauma. Their drug use is self-medication. Often, their lives are in free fall.

For these users, health diversions are a much better outcome rather than being arrested. Harm reduction policies are more likely to work and stop police wasting their time trying to manage people who need medical care urgently.

The second broad type of drug users are the ones who flee the nightclub toilets in a panic on Saturday nights when the police arrive around 1 am, leaving an ocean of white powder behind them.

They’re recreational users, they’re likely employed and while they may have a problem, they’re also creating a problem for bars, restaurants, clubs and event venues.

Under the new laws, venue owners can certainly evict patrons from the premises for open drug use, but unless there’s dealing involved, police are unlikely to respond to calls about personal drug use. There is no criminal offence taking place and no consequences beyond fines and diversions so police will have other priorities. Venues will have to manage the problem themselves.

Many owners and operators in the ACT are raising the spectre of open illicit drug consumption and its reputational and operational consequences for their businesses.

They must operate under strict controls regarding alcohol provision and consumption, but where are the controls or regulations around managing customers who are shaping up their lines on the bar?

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ACT Police believe there will be an increase in drug usage, paralleling the increase in cannabis consumption that followed decriminalisation several years ago. They’re concerned that young users, in particular, won’t grasp the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation and that the minimum quantities of drugs are too high.

Police training, communication and messaging of the changes and a review of administration arrangements were set in place for the first 12 months of operations, followed by a further review after two years.

That training, support and communication must extend to support for entertainment venues, owners and operators – the people who will now have to manage the consequences of this significant change.

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simon clarkson10:10 pm 10 Sep 23

Why do politicians think that it’s a good idea to give complete control of the Drug Trade to criminals. For thousands of years drugs where no problem whatsoever, the Roman’s had Ladunam a liquid opium, Queen Victoria was addicted to opium after complications from child birth. One hundred years ago the politicians took control of the drug trade and told the criminals that they can do what ever they want.
Addicted means that they can’t stop or help themselves, so stop telling to just give up, they can’t, that’s what addicted means.
The dumbest law anyones heard of is that I a doctor gets you addicted to drugs he has to stop your prescription drugs and send you to a criminal drug dealer, your ADDICTED.
The drug laws only benefit the criminals, not society.
They were no problem until the politicians gave control of the drug trade 100 years ago.
Queen Victoria wouldn’t have allowed them to be made illegal, she was addicted and knows the meaning of the word.

Our submission not to decriminalise illicit drugs including cannabis with evidence on why not to, was always removed only leaving the dangers of tobacco smoking before handing them to the select committee. We asked to ban growing cannabis at home and the smoking form, to only legalise the oil form with a subscription. Corruption.

There seems to have been zero consideration for the potential harm, risk to life and property of those who aren’t drug users.
Rattenbury seems like a fairly logical guy but he’s complexity lost me on this one, I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see this ending well.

What needs to happen is the Government allowing controlled Pharmaceutical production and sale of certain drugs like cannabis, ecstasy, coke and psychedelics. The other drugs remain banned and gaol terms of 25 year’s minimum for supply or production of any drugs.

The result would be, less harm to those that want to partake and a safer product produced with government oversight. With warnings labels on the products like cigarette packets and decriminalising of its use, greater control over what people are taking and less harm overall would be the benefit to society.

People are still going to take drugs whether legal or not so the Government might as well create a new income stream and end the criminal trade of being in the drug game.

Not all, in fact most drug users are normal good people. If our young want to drop a pill at a music concert, let’s give them something they can have confidence won’t kill them so they don’t have to take the dangerous alternative.

And how is the vaping experiment working out – also touted as a ‘safer’ product (note – ‘safer’ not ‘safe’, @Elf also noted in the second paragraph)?

My point was they’re going to do it anyway. The government produced drug will be safer than the bikie produced drug. It’s a persons choice to vape. I think it’s stupid but some want to do it.

HiddenDragon7:27 pm 09 Sep 23

This latest entry by the ACT government in the “we’re even more progressive than Andrews’ Victoria” stakes would be a little easier to take at face value if it was backed-up by truly comprehensive support for addicts and by rigorous and relentless pursuit of the middle and upper echelons of the illicit drug distribution system.

It would also be very interesting to see some serious local research on the second category of users described in Genevieve’s article, particularly regarding their motivations and the broader harms, including financial, which they and those close to them suffer.

Australia in general, and Canberra in particular, seem to “punch above our weight” in the use of illicit drugs compared to other affluent, liberal societies – something which is often noted, but never really explained.

Excellent and well-thought-out article. Nicely done, Genevieve.

This decriminalisation is great for some but not so good for some of us senior citizens who live adjacent to a known dealer. We already have problems with drug users using our property as a thoroughfare and using our back fences as a place to inject, now that small possession is decriminalised I am certain our problems will increase. I wonder how many of us will have to get abused or even hurt before something is done.

Peter Strong7:33 am 09 Sep 23

Spot on and well spotted. The government has a very poor record in understanding the impact of their decisions on businesses but are very quick to criticise business people who get things wrong. Where was the consultation? The scenario planning? Who will be responsible for any negative impacts? (Won’t be the government.)

To all the progressives – you’ve lobbied for Pandora’s box to be opened. You are now responsible for this. Reap what you sow

liveandletlive11:31 am 09 Sep 23

Lynn Stape / Futureproof – you should do some research and look into countries such as Portugal who decriminalized the consumption of ALL drugs back in 2001. 22 years on, drug use has declined among the 15-23 year old population, and the drug induced death rate is now five times lower than the EU average. The US on the other hand, spent billions cracking down on drug users, and in 2016 64,000 Americans died from overdose. Which would you prefer??

You mean those drug utopias of Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Philadelphia, where law enforcement is almost non existent. Gee that’s working well

liveandletlive12:45 pm 10 Sep 23

Yep, that must have been caused by the new laws as you have never been able to buy pot in Canberra prior to that.

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