Pubdate: Thu, 24 Sep 2015
Source: Mercury, The (Australia)
Copyright: 2015 Davies Brothers Ltd
Author: Hans Willink
Note: Hans Willink is a former army officer, IT director and 
political candidate.


With major police busts barely denting the illicit drug trade the 
time has come for a decriminalisation trial in Tasmania, writes Hans Willink

Decriminalisation does not mean legalisation. It does not mean that 
drug dealers can ply their evil trade with impunity.

THIS month police in Perth confiscated 320kg of methamphetamine, 
estimated to be worth $320 million, in what was Western Australia's 
biggest seizure of ice.

Politicians nationwide rejoiced. Federal Justice Minister Michael 
Keenan said "this seizure is a hammer blow for the organised 
criminals who peddle in ice".

WA Police Minister Liza Harvey enthused that the operation would put 
a significant dent in the ice market.

Police commentary, though, was far more subdued when predicting the 
effects of the raid. Privately they would know that the effect of the 
raid, indeed the effect of all raids in the 40-year "war on drugs", 
had failed to stem either the supply or demand for illicit drugs.

Every time drug distribution networks are broken, new market 
opportunities are created, with new criminals rapidly filling the void.

Former Victorian police commissioner and now head of the National Ice 
Taskforce, Ken Lay, put it succinctly: "For the last 10 years we've 
been trying to arrest our way out of this and we haven't succeeded so 
we need to look at other solutions."

I disagree. It's time we stopped looking at other solutions. It's 
time we started acting on them. Its time to "do something" and the 
something we need to do is not further prohibition but rather conduct 
a Tasmanian trial to decriminalise the use of small amounts of 
illicit drugs, a trial that will be soft on drug users but harder on 
drug dealers, as they are denied access to the super profits that sustain them.

The model that should be tested in Tasmania is the model in use in 
Portugal, which had one of Europe's worst drug problems but 
decriminalised all drugs in 2001 and has since become the only 
country in the Western world to have achieved a simultaneous 
reduction in drug crime, overdose deaths, HIV transmission rates, a 
50 per cent reduction in injecting drug use and a dramatic reduction 
in court workloads ( Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari).

What does decriminalisation of drugs actually mean? To answer this 
question it is perhaps easier to start with saying what it isn't.

Decriminalisation does not mean legalisation. It does not mean that 
drug dealers can ply their evil trade with impunity.

Indeed, the penalties for dealing large quantities of drugs may 
actually increase, as may the likelihood that they be caught and 
punished as the police and legal resources that used to be expended 
on catching, arresting and prosecuting addicts are diverted and 
concentrated on catching "bigger fish" further up the food chain.

So how does decriminalisation of drugs actually work in Portugal?

In July 2001, a new law continued to make it illegal to possess or 
use illicit drugs for personal use but the offence was changed from a 
criminal one, which may result in imprisonment, to an administrative 
one if the amount possessed was no more than 10 days' supply of that substance.

Drug addicts were then to be aggressively driven to therapy or 
community service. Criminal penalties still applied to drug growers, 
dealers and traffickers.

Individuals found in possession of small quantities of drugs are 
issued a summons. The drugs are confiscated, and the suspect is 
interviewed by a "commission for the dissuasion of drug addiction".

These commissions are made up of three people: A social worker, a 
psychiatrist, and a lawyer.

The commissions have a broad range of sanctions available to them 
when ruling on the drug use offence. These 
include:  Fines.  Suspension of the right to practise if the user has 
a licensed profession (a medical doctor or a bus driver), if it is 
considered that the drug use may threaten public safety.

A ban on visiting specific locations (where drugs may be commonly sold).

A ban on associating with particular people.

Requirement to report periodically to the committee.

Confiscation of personal possessions.

Suspension of government subsidies or allowances.

If the person is addicted to drugs, they may be admitted to a drug 
rehabilitation centre or be given community service.

The committee cannot mandate compulsory treatment but has the power 
to suspend sanctions conditional on voluntary entry into treatment.

If the offender is not addicted to drugs, or unwilling to submit to 
treatment or community service, he or she may be fined.

While the Portuguese model is widely lauded, it is important to be 
sceptical and not view it as a panacea for all of Tasmania's drug problems.

There is little reliable information about drug use, injecting 
behaviour or addiction treatment in Portugal before 2001.

It is therefore difficult to statistically prove that there is a 
cause and effect relationship between measures taken before and after 

Despite these limitations, there was an increased uptake of 
treatment, a reduction in new HIV diagnoses among drug users by 17 
per cent, drug-related criminal justice workloads decreased, the 
street value of most illicit drugs decreased and drug-related deaths decreased.

That said, the reduction of drug-related deaths decreased in later 
years, gradually returning to the same level as before the drug 
strategy was introduced.

However, this may be accounted for by improvement in measurement 
practices, which included a doubling of toxicological autopsies, 
meaning that more drug-related deaths are likely to be recorded.

This observation deserves emphasis, as similar patterns have been 
observed with trials

elsewhere. If resources are increased to measure any negative 
activity, then it is highly likely that the level of that activity 
will be observed to have increased.

This is exactly what happened with the "safe at home" domestic 
violence initiative in the 2000s, with the consequential risk of 
alarmist media exaggeration and premature determination that a trial 
has been a failure.

It is also difficult to know if the Portuguese model has been equally 
effective against methamphetamines such as ice.

Unlike opiates, for example heroin, which have less harmful 
substitutes such as methadone, there are currently no proven drug 
substitutes for ice.

That said, Johann Hari argues that addiction isn't the real problem, anyway.

He observed that the vast majority of hospital patients given high 
doses of medical heroin for pain relief simply stop using it upon discharge.

Further tests resulted in his hypothesis that "it's not the chemical 
that's your cage". The overwhelming reason for addiction was the pain 
and isolation the individual felt.

"The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it's human connection," Hari said.

In Tasmania, is it surprising that ice use is highest on the 
North-West Coast, with its high rate of youth unemployment?

In Portugal, drug policy has recognised this observation by spending 
the money saved on punishing addicts to pay for comprehensive 
treatment services, job creation programs and training courses to 
reintegrate users back into the community.

If it is accepted that the Portuguese decriminalisation model is 
worth trying, it is important to ask why should such a trial be held 
in Tasmania, and why now?

I can think of several good reasons:

First, Tasmania has clear boundaries and a measurable population that 
is representative of the rest of Australia, as recognised by research 
conducted by the Menzies Centre with a variety of epidemiological studies.

In the Menzies Centre, Tasmania has a highly capable and 
statistically competent workforce capable of managing such a trial.

The ice problem on the North West Coast is among the worst in Australia.

The results of such a trial may have implications and benefits 
throughout Australia. Accordingly it should be financed by the 
Federal Government and viewed as an income earning opportunity.

The leadership of the Federal Government has now changed, with the 
prospect of more liberal attitudes to harm minimisation initiatives 
in preference to increased prohibition. Even Right-wing commentators 
such as Alan Jones are now recognising that current drug policy is not working.

There exists widespread support for such a trial from many 
practitioners, including law enforcement and heath professionals.

If the trial fails (and it must be conceded that it might), then the 
damage incurred is both limited and reversible.

In conclusion, while a trial run of drug decriminalisation in 
Tasmania may be partly or even completely unsuccessful, the only 
other option is to keep doing the same thing, for which failure is guaranteed.

If Tasmania wants to be recognised as an innovative and 
thought-leading state, then this is the type of trial we should volunteer for.
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