ANALYSIS: Drug decriminalisation in NSW
Whether it’s called decriminalisation or not, a shift from the NSW Government towards reducing the harm from drugs - instead of heavy-handed policing - is long overdue.
The cost of the failed War on Drugs increases every year. Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent in NSW targeting and prosecuting people who use illegal drugs, yet drug use continues to increase. According to the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey, one in six people (15.9%) in NSW aged 14 and over admitted to using an illicit drug in the 12 months prior.
Yet, in the past few years, we’ve seen a massive increase in police powers in NSW in the name of tackling drug use. Stories of underage kids being strip searched have turned the stomach of many parents, while NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data shows that cocaine use and possession has increased from 2.9 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 29.4 in 2020. Meanwhile, drug-related deaths have continued to rise since 2006, nearly on par with a peak in 1999.
In other words, our current approach to drugs is one massive expensive flop that is literally killing people.
In April 2019, I visited Portugal on a self-funded study tour of that country’s drug laws. The difference between their laws and ours could not be more stark. Nearly 20 years ago, heroin addiction was rampant in Portugal, with one in 100 families impacted by the drug. Everyone knew something had to change to stop people dying. After two years of consultation with all sectors of the community, including live televised debates, the parliament enacted the consensus recommendations arising from the process: to remove criminal sanctions for all personal drug use and possession.
The results are breathtaking: drug-related deaths and the transmission of bloodborne diseases have plummeted and so have crime levels. Further, contrary to fear-mongering claims by right wing commentators, overall drug use hasn’t increased. In fact, levels of drug use in Portugal remain lower than the European average.
Here in NSW, the Special Commission of Inquiry into Ice, established by the Berejiklian Government, recommended removing criminal sanctions for the personal use and possession of drugs. This was made after 14 months of extensive evidence gathering and consultation including expert roundtables, public hearings and site visits.
When people who use illegal drugs know they risk hefty fines, a criminal record and even jail, they don’t seek help when they need it - including if they overdose. When people do seek help they often have to wait up to six months or more for treatment in parts of NSW. In Portugal, those who need treatment are in a rehab centre within days. That’s why this shift by the Government has been so welcomed by health, legal and other experts as well as many families of loved ones who have lost their lives to drugs.
The Government is saying their proposed approach isn’t decriminalisation. I don’t care what they call it, but if it ensures drug use is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal one, leaving police to focus on actual crimes and ensure more resources are directed to treatment and lives are saved, then how can that not be a bloody good thing.
NSW Greens MP and Drug Law Reform spokesperson.