We must deal with drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal one

Rebecca Vassarotti 5 August 2020 8
Alexander Maconochie Centre

The criminalisation of personal drug use has resulted in courts and jail systems overwhelmed by people who use drugs. Photo: File.

This week the ACT Greens will release its 2020 Election Drugs Policy package.

The plan responds to the reality that many people use drugs. It recognises that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed and we need new approaches to keep people in our community safe. This means ending the unnecessary interactions with the police and justice system, and providing people experiencing drug dependency with the services and support they need.

It’s easy to drag out slogans and frame every person who uses drugs as a criminal. But most people know by now that this doesn’t help respond to the adverse effects of drug use in our community.

Instead, we know that the community wants evidence-based strategies that ensure that people are informed about the risks of drug use and are able to reduce harms associated with drug use. The community wants to be assured that people can access the support they need if they are struggling with dependency issues. This new approach isn’t as easy, but it’s the right and the smart thing to do.

The criminalisation of personal drug use has resulted in courts and jail systems overwhelmed by people who use drugs, without any real strategy to support people dealing with a dependency issue. This is a plan that seeks to change that. It’s also a plan that aims to redress a system where not every person who uses drugs is treated equally. We don’t want to see a continuing situation where people of colour, First Nations people and people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be penalised for minor drug offences than others.

These initiatives focus on people. This means providing more support. When people demonise drug use, they often forget we are talking about people – someone’s son or daughter, their husband, mother, friend. These initiatives aim to ensure that people don’t die or suffer irreparable harm because they make a poor choice or don’t have enough information. They aim to stop the current situation where people unwilling to seek support when they need it because of fear, stigma and shame.

As part of this, a key initiative in the package is increasing funding for drug and alcohol treatment services. This is aimed at increasing the level of support available and in response to sustained calls from the sector and community that we need to provide more support.

It also includes initiatives to ensure that support and treatment are provided in ways that respond to people’s lives and needs – services that are culturally appropriate and recognise that people live in families and communities rather than in a vacuum. It strives to increase diversionary programs, keeping people away from jail and putting them into programs that aim to constructively deal with the consequences of criminality related to drug use.

The ACT should be proud of the work that has occurred in recent years. It has seen significant collaboration between the Government, medical experts, services and the police, and has resulted in keeping people safer. Evaluations of the two-pill testing trials at festivals in Canberra also show what is possible, and how this work has saved lives and keep people safer.

Our future work needs to build on this good work, and there are initiatives contained in the package that do just this – work to see how we can make people safer. These include regular pill testing at festivals and a permanent pill-testing site.

I think it’s time that we commit to addressing drugs as a health issue, not a criminal issue. I want a future where people are safer and where we respond to the adverse health, social and economic consequences of drug and substance use in our community. What do you think?

Rebecca Vassarotti is an ACT Greens candidate for Kurrajong in the upcoming Territory election and the campaign spokesperson for drug policy.


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8 Responses to We must deal with drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal one
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maxblues maxblues 8:08 pm 13 Aug 20

Yes, dealing ? with drugs as a criminal matter is just giving our loveable bikie gangs a bad name. ?

paulmuster paulmuster 7:48 pm 06 Aug 20

By all means treat those who need help and stop locking people up for petty drug offences. But you’ll have to go further than that if you want to try and argue that this policy isn’t just a new direction for the war on drugs.

The only way to end the war is to end prohibition, as society did with coffee and alcohol, is by allowing the development of a heavily regulated and taxed private sector to give the people what they obviously want.

From what I can gather, this strategy just wants to continue painting users with the same brush – the tone has just changed from ‘criminals’ to ‘low life addicts who need help’.

This approach completely ignores the reality that the majority of people using drugs do so recreationally, have done so safely for years and don’t want or need an intervention for their vices.

Very disapointing.

    Elf Elf 7:39 pm 13 Aug 20

    Dead right. legalise Cocaine and ecstasy. The illegal stuff is killing ordinary normal people. The government can legislate its production by proper pharmaceutical companies and sell it with the appropriate warnings. Less decent people will die and less people will seek out the more harmful drugs. Normal decent young people want E. It’s time to provide a safer version so we stop losing our youth to the illegally manufactured drugs. There not going to stop wanting it just because its illegal.

    Prohibition hasn’t worked and wont into the future. Only fools believe it will.

    For the harder drugs, eg: Ice, Heroin and any illegally produced cocaine and ecstasy, lock up the manufacturer for 20 years minimum, the street dealer 10 years minimum and the fool who buys it for 3 months. Make it so it is not worth the risk for the buyer to seek the illegal varieties.

    The bikies and other criminal groups will have to get real jobs again.

Spiral Spiral 1:57 pm 06 Aug 20

“Instead, we know that the community wants evidence-based strategies that ensure that people are informed about the risks of drug use”

Really?

Is there anyone in Australia who doesn’t know that taking drugs like ice is dangerous?

You could sit every school kid down and get them to write “ice is dangerous” 10,000 times and some people will still take it.

I would be amazed if anyone taking ice had not been told it was dangerous.

The problem is that they don’t think the bad things will happen to them or they start taking it while their decision making ability is impaired because of other drugs or social pressures.

There is probably a bit of the “the government is lying to us” attitude as well.

They have been informed that drugs are dangerous, but stupidity often wins over facts.

A_Cog A_Cog 1:09 pm 06 Aug 20

This article spins or ignores the truth.

We don’t need to “deal with drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal one”. We need a minister who does their job, or refuses to keep Barr in power if resourcing and support is insufficient.

Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury has been Corrections Minister since late 2012. He’s had total control over how rehabilitative the AMC is. He’s failed. AMC has methadone prescription rates around 30% when other jurisdictions are 1-2% (meaning prisoners come out of jail as addicted as when they went in). ACT has the highest rate of recidivism by a mile. Shane is also “Minister” for Mental Health – and the ACT lags the rest of the Federation badly there too. And the NDIS already treats drug addiction as a health and mental health issue, funding supports for addicts. But because the ACT’s programs are non-existent (on purpose?) addicts suffer greatly there too. And until 2019, the 400-pax jail was overcrowded by up to 25%, with more violence due to this overcrowding.

And that “diversionary program” hyperlink in paragraph 7? The ACT already has the highest rate of diversionary programs (p39), the second highest rate of non-jail responses to drug offences (p5), the lowest rate of offender detection (p30)… how much softer can we go? When are laws allowed to be laws, and adults required to be adults?

    Paul Murray Paul Murray 1:37 pm 13 Aug 20

    For thousands of years, there has been a penultimate solution (short of execution) for people who just will not, will not, will not obey the law no matter what other penalties were applied: exile. The obvious thing to do is to sentence these people to transportation to Tasmania. Failing that, Australia has recourse to several offshore detention centers already being used to house lawbreakers. And there’s always Macquarie Island.

    Elf Elf 7:42 pm 13 Aug 20

    My son is in the AMC. On arrival 2 years ago he was offered to go on the methadone program despite not having any addiction or known use of Heroin. It’s offered to everyone on arrival.

    Yes he’s in there for drugs, just not stupid enough to use them.

    KaileneDunston KaileneDunston 2:50 am 29 Aug 20

    Can someone answer this. Id like to know why doctors are allowed to do this?

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