Drug decriminalisation helps minimise harm


Drug decriminalisation helps minimise harm

2 March 2016

This week federal parliamentarians will discuss with world experts ways to minimise harm caused by illicit drugs. At a national drug summit, legislators will also be reminded of the sobering reality that Australians consume illegal drugs at concerning levels. A 2014 United Nations report found, for example, Australians lead the world in ecstasy use.

The so-called war on drugs has failed, here and in every nation that embraced it. Former Victorian police commissioner and head of the National Ice Taskforce Ken Lay last year encapsulated the views of many informed people when he said "we can't arrest our way out of this". Former UN chief Kofi Annan made the same case in these pages only last Sunday.

Associated with all this, experts argue the use of police sniffer dogs at music festivals illustrates how a severe approach can result in greater harm; the dogs can create panic and scare attendees into rapidly and potentially fatally consuming all the drugs they have with them, rather than risk being apprehended.

We need an inclusive, informed community discussion about how we deal with drugs that are available on the black market and thus effectively beyond the control of authorities. Ultimately, that means destroying the black market by decriminalising and regulating these substances, and by putting people with problems into the health system, not the criminal justice system.

The Age has consistently stressed we are motivated by harm minimisation, and are not condoning or encouraging the abuse of substances illicit or legal. We recognise the danger of misusing substances, and the tragedies that occur daily. An effective harm reduction strategy would foster policies based on education and, again, regulation.

Next year, the Victorian Parliament's law reform, road and community safety committee will deliver a report on the effectiveness of treatment programs and will explore harm-minimisation as an alternative to treating drug users as criminals. The inquiry is an opportunity to consider a wide range of expert views, including those of the police. It provides a chance for legislators to examine what has worked elsewhere.

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