Support for proposed expansion of drug diversion program

Matt Woodley

22/02/2023 5:38:48 PM

The Queensland Government has introduced legislation that would see people receive a warning for first time minor drug possession.

Person at drug rehab
The RACGP says responses to alcohol and drug use should prioritise rehabilitation of punishment.

A number of medical and addiction organisations, including the RACGP, have backed proposed reforms that prioritise rehabilitation over punishment.
Under the new legislation, introduced into Queensland Parliament on Tuesday, a person found carrying a small amount of a dangerous drug for the first time will only be given a warning, while on the second and third occasions they will be offered a place in a drug diversionary program.
As it stands, the state’s existing Police Drug Diversion Program (PDDP) only applies to those found in possession of small, personal quantities of cannabis. But should the new legislation pass, it will be expanded to include all drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
‘The amendments in this bill have been requested by the Queensland Police Service and implement a common-sense change to the criminal justice response to minor illicit drug use,’ Queensland Police Minister Mark Ryan said when introducing the legislation.
‘The statistics clearly show that police drug diversion programs result in the majority of those individuals never again having contact with police.
‘The Queensland Police Service estimates that more than 17,000 minor drug offenders will be eligible for the new police drug diversion program in year one of implementation – that is 17,000 opportunities to prevent someone from developing a substance abuse disorder.’ 
The RACGP has previously promoted the importance of approaching alcohol and other drugs policy from a health-based perspective, and Queensland Chair Dr Bruce Willett said the new measure will help people address their drug use rather than be punished in the criminal justice system.
‘Alcohol and other drug use should be seen through a health lens, and little is gained by throwing the book at people and putting them in the “too-hard basket”,’ he said.
‘Ask any alcohol and other drug expert and they will tell you that a health-based approach benefits the person involved and also the entire community.
‘By helping people rather than punishing them we can reduce stigma and drug-related deaths, and get more people the help they need to turn their lives around.’
He was also at pains to say that prioritising rehabilitation is not the same as endorsing illicit drug use.
‘It’s important to keep in mind that under these proposed reforms the manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs will remain a criminal offence and that the changes have actually been requested by the police service,’ Dr Willett said.
‘I certainly hope that these proposed changes encourage more people in Queensland to think carefully about their drug use, seek help if needed, and improve their lives for the better.’
Aside from the RACGP, the AMA, Queensland Network of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies, and the Alcohol and Drug Foundation have all supported the legislation.
Meanwhile, RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine Chair Dr Hester Wilson has called on the Government to go even further.
‘As a GP I know all too well that people with substance use disorders need help with social integration and a sense of belonging rather than a criminal justice approach that often only reinforces their behaviour and gets us nowhere,’ she said.
‘It’s vital to keep in mind that some people using drugs have a chronic substance use condition that is very challenging to address. They may need many attempts to turn their life around and change takes time.
‘Just imagine if we only allowed smokers one try at cessation – very, very few people would successfully quit smoking, and I strongly believe we need to apply that same thinking to illicit drugs.
‘You only need to look at the evidence overseas to see that a health-based approach makes sense.’
Dr Wilson said that Portugal’s decriminalisation model, introduced more than 20 years ago, has achieved ‘particularly strong’ results.
‘The Transform Drug Policy Foundation has found that the proportion of prisoners sentenced for drugs in that country has fallen from 40% to 15% and rates of drug use have remained consistently below the European Union average,’ she said.
‘So, let’s look to the systems that work and follow the evidence-base. These measures in Queensland are a positive step forward and I encourage the Government to go even further in the years ahead.
‘Diversion and early intervention programs can make all the difference.’
She also highlighted that alcohol and drug use is so widespread that anyone ‘will be able to point to someone [they know] who has been affected’.
‘By declaring a “war on drugs” and treating all drug use as a criminal justice issue rather than a health issue you are effectively declaring war on people who need help and support,’ she said.
‘Remember, alcohol and other drug use doesn’t discriminate, it could be your loved one, partner, friend, family member – this isn’t something that only impacts “other people”.’
‘As I have said many times before, people who have a problematic relationship with alcohol and other drugs need help and compassion, not a punitive approach that may well lead to a further deterioration of their health and life trajectory.
‘Every person’s life matters.’
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