‘The war on drugs doesn’t work’: New bill shines light on old laws

Jolyon Attwooll

23/02/2022 4:38:53 PM

Legislation before the Victorian Parliament proposes decriminalising drug use. It may not pass but advocates for evidence-based health hope it has an impact.

Police gathered around a man.
A new bill is pushing for a shift of focus away from criminalising drug use towards prevention and treatment. (Image: AAP)

‘An evidence-based, sober and thoughtful debate’: that is what Dr Hester Wilson, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine, hopes a proposed law to decriminalise drug use will generate.
The legislation is contained in a bill that Fiona Patten of the Reason Party is putting forward to the Victorian State Parliament. It pushes for a shift of focus away from criminalising drug use towards prevention and treatment.
Ms Patten argues that the issue should be seen primarily through a health lens and believes current legislation uses up police resources unnecessarily.
She points towards figures published by Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency, which show most arrests involve drug users rather than the large-scale suppliers.
Of the 32,860 arrests for drug-related offences in Victoria in the year until September 2021, 25,833 were for drug possession and 362 were for drug use, making 80% of the total.
In fact, drug possession was one of the most common crimes registered by the Victorian Police.
With an average 386.8 offences per 100,000 people in the same timeframe, it was recorded more often than shoplifting, car theft or burglary – and was the sixth most prevalent in official statistics.
Ms Patten’s bill aims to change that approach fundamentally and would allow Victorian Police to give mandatory referrals to drug education or treatment to those suspected of using or possessing drugs instead of making arrests.
‘Irrefutable international evidence proves replacing criminal penalties with mandatory health and recovery treatment is the most effective and efficient way,’ Ms Patten said in a statement this month.

Already, Ms Patten’s bill has generated plenty of discussion, and Dr Wilson welcomes the framing of the issue from a health perspective.
‘It is clear that addiction, whatever it is to, is a significant, chronic relapsing medical condition,’ Dr Wilson told newsGP.
‘People who have that condition are severely discriminated against and stigmatised. They are driven to behave in ways that they wouldn’t have to if they didn’t have this condition.’
Ms Patten cites a ‘harm-minimisation’ approach advocated by World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Global Commission on Drug Policy as indicative of a global trend away from the more traditional prohibition approach.
Dr Wilson has seen the impact of decriminalisation laws firsthand, having gone to Portugal to observe how changing legislation impacted that country.
With some of the highest overdose rates in Europe in the 1990s, Portugal introduced laws in 2001 to address the problem. These included the decriminalisation of all drugs for personal use.
‘Everybody had a family member who had been adversely affected,’ Dr Wilson said. ‘Everybody saw that what was happening wasn’t working, that people that they loved were coming to harm.’
Decriminalisation in Portugal was just one aspect of a broad strategy, which also included significant investments in public health education, as well as drug prevention and treatment services.
The impact was substantial. According to a UK Parliamentary Report looking into the prospect of decriminalisation in Scotland, the number of annual overdose deaths had fallen from 80 in 2001 to 30 in 2016. It now has a much lower rate of drug-related deaths than the European average, with fewer younger people using drugs.
Could the bill put forward by Fiona Patten be a step towards a similar model in Victoria, and away from a prohibition-based approach she describes as ‘one of the most disastrous public policy failures in modern history’?
The legislation is due to be debated on Wednesday 2 March. However, as with most private members’ bills, it is highly unlikely to pass. Last week, senior figures in the Victorian Government, including the Treasurer Tim Pallas, signalled the Bill would not gain the support it needed.
Its advocates still hope putting the issue in the spotlight may lead the Victorian Law Reform Commission to reconsider existing legislation – as well as potentially attracting more investment into prevention and addiction treatments.
Both the RACGP President Dr Karen Price and RACGP Victoria Chair Dr Anita Muñoz also advocate for a shift away from punitive measures to a more health-based approach.
Other figures involved in addiction treatment services have explicitly supported the Bill and say the current legislation is due an overhaul.
For Dr Wilson too, change is critical. She argues the system is continuing to let down some of society’s most vulnerable members.
‘We know young people are experimenting,’ she said.
‘There’s not good information out there and they’re scared to come forward if they have a problem. They end up coming into contact with the criminal justice system, which has such an impact on their life trajectories.
‘The way we’re doing things, it isn’t working. The war on drugs doesn’t work. It just causes more harm.’

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Dr Michael Willoughby Nixon   24/02/2022 9:07:02 AM

The addicted are sick people needing good medical care - NOT prison - Proper education of our young and good preventative measures are the answer -

Dr Oliver Frank   24/02/2022 9:09:09 AM

Good to see increasing recognition that making some substances illegal does more harm than good, and that a health-based approach is needed. It i a sobering thought that the main beneficiaries of the current laws are bikie gangs and corrupt politicians and police. I hope that the RACGP will strongly support this and similar proposals.

Dr Vineet Jadhav   24/02/2022 9:10:50 AM

I hope this always remains, a debate, as usual any health related debates, which do not involve "Practicing GP's", rather are proposed by "specialist" who are removed from the grass root problems of community health and resource limitations, leads to catastrophic failures.
Drug distribution , should be convictable offence as compared to drug usage, as the former is done with intent for profit, rather as a coping , strategy . In the end we know that everyone who uses a form of addiction ,be it drugs, alcohol , nicotine etc.. all use it as a form of coping mechanism.
These in turn are from inadequate social support, and a failing health system, particularly mental health.
The past decade of the Australian Health , system, has seen a huge expansion of "health pathways", without any changes to the "destination where these lead to. At the end of the day, the end result is "go see your GP".
I hope the altruistic efforts of Dr Wilson doesn't lead to the above mentioned "pathway".

Dr Shanthini Seelan   24/02/2022 9:45:34 PM

Addiction is another chronic disease rapidly growing in the community The stigma should be removed and instead the medical fraternity should rethink strategies to help those who have succumbed to it It goes hand in hand with mental illness a terrible double whammy which causes much destruction of lives of the victim and families

Dr Syan John Tan   1/03/2022 8:09:19 AM

Not being able to see your kids without supervision is pretty good motivation to clean up, more powerful than addiction. Let police /court/social work stay , not more funding for psychologists and mental health care plans , which are relatively less useful .