Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Statements by Senators

Illicit Drugs

1:05 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

On 7 April, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the establishment of a new task force to identify more effective responses to the drug crystal methamphetamine, more commonly referred to as ice. In response, former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay, who chairs the task force, said that Australia cannot 'arrest its way' out of the ice epidemic. It was a sentiment echoed by a number of retired and serving police chiefs. Yet, on the weekend, the Prime Minister responded by announcing a $1 million dob-in-a-dealer hotline while at the same time cutting substance misuse funding by $8.2 million—funding for prevention and services. Nothing could more starkly highlight the failure of Australia's drugs policy. We are not alone in dealing with this problem and we could learn a lot from what is being done overseas. Last month, I took the opportunity to visit Portugal, a country that removed criminal penalties for the possession of all drugs for personal drug use in 2001.

In Portugal serious criminal penalties apply for drug dealers, but it is no longer a criminal offence to possess drugs for personal use. Instead personal drug use is considered to be an administrative violation, and penalties are decided by regional panels made up of legal, health and social work professionals. People with drug dependence are encouraged to seek treatment—though they are rarely sanctioned if they choose not to—and the ambition is to make sure that it is there when they need it.

In 2001, Portugal had more than 100,000 heroin users—that is, one in 100 of the population of Portugal using heroin. In the years leading up to the reform, the number of drug related deaths had soared. They saw rates of HIV, AIDS, hepatitis B and C among people injecting drugs rapidly increasing. There was a growing consensus among law enforcement and health officials that the criminalisation and marginalisation of people who use drugs was contributing to this problem and that a new more humane evidence based legal framework was necessary.

So Portugal decided to remove criminal penalties for personal drug use and it allocated 90 per cent of its anti-drug funding into expanding and improving prevention, treatment, harm reduction and social reintegration programs, with 10 per cent allocated to policing and punishment.

Almost 15 years on from this change, what have we learnt? We know that in Portugal levels of drug use remain below the European average; drug use has declined among those aged 15-24; lifetime drug use among the general population is broadly in line with comparable countries; between 2000 and 2005, which is the most up-to-date data, rates of problematic drug use and injecting drug use decreased; drug use among adolescents decreased for several years following decriminalisation; and the rates of ongoing drug use—that is, people who continue to use drugs—have also decreased.

This policy fits well with what I learnt as a doctor working in a drug and alcohol clinic in Geelong. The people I saw as patients had a lot in common. They struggled with physical drug dependence and they struggled to keep those things that anchor the rest of us in our daily lives—family, friends, social relationships, a job and a roof over our heads. They often had mental illness and other problems such as anxiety, depression and psychosis—sometimes triggered by their drug use; sometimes preceding their drug use. We have huge challenges as medical professionals in helping to get people well, keeping them well and getting their lives back on track. When a patient is ready for help and seeks it out, they can and do recover, but what makes things difficult is when the services they need are not available to them when they have made that critical decision to get help.

One thing that does not help is getting caught up in the criminal justice system. For someone struggling just to get off drugs and keep a roof over their head, an encounter with the law, a trip to the police station and being locked up is almost guaranteed to erase any progress. We do not arrest people for developing diabetes but we intervene when other people are struggling with a serious health issue, minimising any chance they have of recovery. Even if they do recover, they still have the obstacle of a criminal record, which can severely limit any prospects of future employment.

I have seen the impact that drug use and drug dependence has on people's lives. It breaks up families. It has a devastating impact on young kids, so I do not come at it from a libertarian perspective where everyone should be able to do what they want and when they want regardless of the consequences. Our current approach does not deter people from using drugs and it creates harm rather than preventing it.

Most heavy drug users go through a cycle of addiction and eventually they stop using either on their own or because they get help. Our challenge is to keep people healthy during this time—clean needles so they do not contract viruses, overdose strategies, prevention strategies and so on. As a nation, Australia will never make progress with its drug problems until people can access care quickly and affordably. In many parts of the country, people have to wait for six months for drug treatment, and we have a limited range of options. It is not just those individuals who bear the cost but society as a whole. Depriving treatment and funding for treatment is a classic false economy.

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre reported that Australian governments spent approximately $1.7 billion in 2009-10 responding to the issue of illicit drugs. This included a range of things: counselling, pharmacotherapy, harm reduction programs but also police detection and arrest in relation to drug crimes and border protection. It is about 0.13 per cent of GDP and 0.8 of all government funding, and yet we do not spend time in this chamber debating whether what we are doing is effective. Of that money, 66 per cent went on law enforcement, 21 per cent on treatment and only nine per cent on prevention.

The one thing that I did agree with the Prime Minister on was when he said that the war on drugs is not a war we will ever finally win. He is right. I believe in evidence based policy. You do not have to go very far to see the evidence to support this assertion. By any measure you care to name, our current approach is a failure. Drugs are cheap and available. The price of street heroin and cocaine is cheaper than it has ever been. Drugs are stronger and more concentrated, and use continues. All we have got to show for it is a broken treatment system, people in jail only to be replaced by new users as soon as others have been locked away. It is time to acknowledge this reality and start doing something about it.

I am pleased to be working with members of the Liberal Party and the Labor Party as convener of the Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy and Law. We need a new approach. Of course addressing the issue of drug trafficking will always play a role but it will be more effective if we reduce demand. We have to fund evidence based treatment and invest more in research. We have to put more money into treatments that we know work like methadone substation, which is still not subsidised on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. We have to look at new treatments such as substitution agents for drugs like ice. Education is important but, let's be clear, it needs to be realistic and it needs to accord with the experience of drug users. If it does not, it will be ineffective or, even worse, it can actually drive drug use up.

We have seen the Global Commission on Drug Policy recommending a range of treatment modalities and we have to make sure that we are following the evidence. We once led the world on this. We were on the verge of implementing a heroin trial to address the issue of heroin misuse. It has been more than a decade that this issue has been discussed in this parliament. We are seeing changes right around the world. We are seeing them and they show us that, if we look at this issue objectively in a more measured bite, we allocate funding to those areas where we know the evidence is clear, we are slow and we are cautious and, above all, when we start to accept that drug use will always be with us and that it is a health issue, we will finally start to make progress. (Time expired)