drug use

Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Drug Use in the ACT

27 October 2023

6.4 MINS

by Dr Karen Broadley

In October last year, the Government of the Australian Capital Territory passed the Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Act 2022, thereby decriminalising personal possession of small amounts of drugs, including amphetamines, cocaine, ice, ecstasy, heroin and LSD.

This means that, from October 28 this year, a person in the ACT who is found to be in possession of such drugs for personal use will be able to pay a $100 fine or attend an assessment and harm-reduction session. Alternatively, but much less likely, police may require the person to appear before a court. In which case, the person will no longer face imprisonment, but rather a maximum fine of $160.

Either way, the person pays, and their legal problems go away, but not necessarily their drug problems.

According to the ACT Government, the aim of this so-called “reform” is to reduce stigma around drug use and to encourage people who use drugs to access health services. On the ACT Health website, it says:

“The reform is intended to ensure people who use drugs are offered the health services and support they may need while providing a pathway away from the criminal justice system.”

In other words, the ACT Government’s key reason for decriminalisation is compassion, to offer people who use drugs a pathway away from being criminalised and towards getting the health and treatment services that they need.

Myriad Perils

Before examining the ACT’s claim, which is problematic because it only tells us a fraction of the story, it is important to reiterate the many harms caused by drug use.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, illicit drug use “affects individuals, families and the broader Australian community”.

“These harms are numerous and include:

  • “Health impacts such as burden of disease, death, overdoses and hospitalisation.
  • “Social impacts such as violence, crime and trauma.
  • “Economic impacts such as the cost of health care and law enforcement.”

The drugs that the ACT has decriminalised have their own unique health consequences. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, regular use of amphetamines, for example, can result in mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and paranoia, as well as dental problems, regular colds and flu, and even stroke.

Regular use of heroin can result in damaged heart, lungs, liver and brain, as well as intense sadness, no sex drive and constipation. It is well known that injecting drugs can result in hepatitis B and C, HIV/AIDS, vein damage, blood clots, infection and tetanus. Snorting drugs can damage the nasal passage and cause nosebleeds.

Alcohol and other drug use is widely recognised as a risk factor for being a victim or perpetrator of violence. According to a systematic review of 28 primary research studies, alcohol and other drug use was “frequently detected in patients presenting to hospital for violence-related injuries”.

Although many experts agree that excessive alcohol consumption has a stronger relation to violence than some drugs, this is not the case for stimulants (for example, amphe­tamines, cocaine and ice), which have a strong association with violence.

Other consequences of illicit drug use include family violence, child abuse and neglect, and children requiring placement in out-of-home care. An estimated 60-70 per cent of children in child protection out-of-home care have a parent with a substance abuse disorder (SUD).

It is also important to point out that about 10 per cent of people who use drugs develop an SUD: that is, they develop a chronic relapsing disorder which is characterised by compulsive drug-seeking and using that persists despite dangers to themselves, their health, and dangers to their families and communities.

Although it is impossible to predict which people will transition from drug use to an SUD, we do know that the risk is highest for those who start using drugs in their teenage and young adult years.

So, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that drugs are harmless, or that drug use only affects users themselves, or that drugs are not addictive, or that there is a “safe level” of drug use.

So, this leads us to the key question. Will the ACT’s decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, result in better health and safety of drug users themselves, their families and their communities?

Obviously, the answer is that decriminalisation cannot and will not result in anything positive for anyone. By decriminalising drugs, the ACT Government is sending the message that drug use is acceptable and safe. As a result, there is a real risk that more people will take drugs, particularly young people, and will develop an SUD, despite the dangers to themselves, their health, their families and their communities.

Disingenuous

Furthermore, the ACT Government’s claim that the reform will ensure that people who use drugs get diverted from the criminal system to the health system so that they can get the help and treatment they need, is completely disingenuous.

Before outlining why it is disingenuous, it is important to explain that the concept of diverting people who use drugs away from the criminal system to the health system is not new. In fact, it has long been part of Australian police and criminal justice practice, especially relating to young people. In fact there is a large evidence base showing the benefits of diversion, which include reductions in recidivism, increased treatment uptake and improved social outcomes.

There is also reduced burden on police and the courts. Pre-arrest diversion, for example, may involve an individual being diverted by the police, at the time the drug use or possession is discovered, into counselling or some other type of education or treatment program.

Pre-sentence diversion may involve a magistrate or judge delaying sentencing and releasing the individual into a treatment program. The individual’s success or otherwise with treatment is then taken into account when the sentence is handed down.

There are, of course, different levels of coercion attached to diversion programs. Sometimes it is entirely voluntary and with the consent of the person found to be in possession of the drugs. Or there is compulsion attached to the diversion as indicated above.

The concept of diversion, as it relates to illicit drug offences, is so familiar to our way of doing criminal justice, that for some years, the Australian government’s own National Drug Strategy 2017-2026 has advocated the use of drug-diversion programs. It lists “diversion from the criminal justice system to treatment services” as a priority. It commits to “enhancing systems to facilitate greater diversion into health interventions from the criminal justice system, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, young people and other at-risk populations who may be experiencing disproportionate harm”.

But here is the catch. Sensible, well-thinking people are compelled to ask, are there enough “on the ground” drug education, counselling, treatment and rehabilitation services to actually divert people to?

Surely there are, you might say! Could a government really come up with a reform such as this, if a dire shortage of services makes the reform impossible to practise on the ground?

Unbelievably, yes, this is exactly how it is. A National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre UNSW 2019 study, “Criminal justice responses relating to personal use and possession of illicit drugs: the reach of Australian drug-diversion programs and barriers and facilitators to expansion”, found that there is indeed a shortage of drug-related health services to which police and courts can divert and refer people.

Although the experts involved in the study (police, justice, health, non-government organisations and peak bodies from all over Australia) unanimously supported the use of drug diversion, they noted that shortages of health and treatment services impede a diversionary response.

The experts also noted a pattern across several jurisdictions of declining rates of diversion because of the lack of services to which people can be diverted. It is important to note that this study was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health.

Another study undertaken by the Australian Institute of Criminology (a government-funded entity) in 2021, “Sentencing for social supply of illicit drugs in Australia”, reported very similar findings.

The study found that judges, who had many years of experience on the bench, agreed that diversion was a desirable goal for many of those who appeared in their courts. The problem, the judges said, is that “there just aren’t the programs available to respond to the needs of offenders”.

The report concluded:

“Judges made a case for a much-expanded range of options, including education and treatment, which is needed for effective sentencing and diversion, but, importantly, this required a considerable and credible (re)invest­ment of resources.”

It is remarkable, isn’t it? Government-funded research reveals the truth about governments themselves. The truth is that many government ministers, such as those in the ACT, wave the virtue flag as they look us straight in the eye and tell us they don’t want to stigmatise people who use drugs. They tell us they want to help people who use drugs by offering them the health services and support they need.

But they are playing a massive con job on us. And they are actually setting us up for failure. They are rolling out the red carpet for drug use, all the while knowing that there are not nearly enough services to help the increasing number of people, mostly young people, who will develop a substance use disorder in the face of increased availability of harmful drugs.

In many areas, particularly in regional and rural areas, the services and help these government ministers love to talk about, simply do not exist.

Please support the Drug Advisory Council of Australia (DACA) as we continue to push back against:

  • The international push to normalise drug use.
  • The half-truths (more-like “eighth-truths”) that modern left-wing governments use to back up their push for legalisation and decriminalisation of illicit drugs.
  • The notion that there is a safe use of illicit drugs for so called “recreational use”.

Please like us on Facebook/Meta, consider attending one of our fundraising events, and consider donating to the cause.

Karen Broadley (PhD) is an executive member of DACA.

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Originally published in News Weekly. Photo by Mart Production.

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One Comment

  1. Countess Antonia Maria Violetta Scrivanich 27 October 2023 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    Government hypocrisy.The Chinese Drug business is what kills those young Australian idiots who take “Party Drugs “. It pays for Sydney’s high-rise buildings and exports the millions made from the Drug Trade to China . Chinese revenge for the Opium Wars in which Britain forced opium on the Chinese . Scum (ie footballers ) promote by example that it is “cool “to take drugs. Doctors high on drugs operating on people . Auto mechanics and others high on drugs. How safe are we ?

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