Since the last Parliament we have lost five lives in New South Wales to suspected drug overdoses at music festivals. In response the Premier said she had no evidence before her to prove that pill testing worked and ruled out a trial. I thought I would go and find the evidence myself.
Last month I travelled to Portugal to see firsthand that country's groundbreaking approach to drugs. In Lisbon I met with the Head of Criminal Investigations for Lisbon Police, Fabio Carreto, who told me that when people who use drugs are treated as criminals the judicial system falls over. Nuno Capaz, from the Dissuasion Commission, the agency within the Ministry of Health that processes those found by the police to be using illicit drugs, knows what happens too. People do not stop taking drugs, but more die from avoidable overdoses and infections like HIV because that is what was happening in the 1980s and 1990s in Lisbon with dozens of people openly shooting up heroin in neighbourhood streets. I was shown footage and it looked like a war zone.
At the height of Portugal's drug crisis, one in 100 people were heroin addicts. No family was untouched by drugs and drug addiction rated as the number one problem in the polls. It was plain for all to see that trying to stop illicit drug use was futile and that government policy which treated drug users as criminals was clogging the courts and killing people. So after an 18-month process in the late 1990s to come up with a different approach, led by health and justice experts with a huge amount of community consultation, including public forums and televised debates, recommendations were made to the government centring around one core theme—that all drugs should be decriminalised. These recommendations were accepted. They changed the country and saved thousands of lives. The focus of the police is now on the big drug traffickers and dealers and on tackling other crimes, like domestic violence. Social and health services have been given more resources to ensure people who are addicted are given treatment when they need it.
Fabio Carreto told me that 90 per cent of people who use illicit drugs use them recreationally and will not become addicted. But roughly one in 10 will and in Portugal they are able to access free treatment when they need it. I visited a mobile methadone van in Lisbon, one of several operating in the city every single day of the year. People who use drugs are not stigmatised and do not get criminal records. They are given support. People are not harassed on the streets or at festivals or clubs by police in an effort to catch drugs users. And the country and all sides of politics have been united behind their decriminalisation model for almost two decades now. Commander Carreto said:
We are happy with the system because we are helping to solve the problem. Before 2001 we didn't solve the problem.
While I was there I attended also the Harm Reduction International Conference in Porto. I heard about mobile and community drug checking facilities in the Netherlands, France, Canada, Colombia and the Ukraine and the mobile drug consumption rooms including clean needles and syringes for injecting drug users provided by non‑government organisations in Toronto. I heard from European experts about the futility of trying to keep abreast of illicit drugs with more and more synthetic drugs like spices and salts so easily obtained on the darknet, particularly by young women.
Commander of the Porto police, Fernando Pauli, told the conference that in Portugal by the age of 21, 41 per cent of people have admitted to trying an illegal substance, mostly cannabis. In Portugal, though, they understand the difference between addiction and recreational drug users. They know that targeting recreational drug users is a waste of police resources because you are never going to stop people doing it. Roughly the same amount of people per capita use drugs in Portugal that use drugs in Australia. But we spend more than $1 billion each year waging this morally charged war against people who use a certain type of drug and then people who are addicted who urgently need treatment cannot get it for many months. When are we going to wake up?
We will never stop people from taking mind-altering substances because it would appear it is well and truly part of the human condition. Humans have been taking substances to relax, to feel good, to have fun, to experiment, to numb their pain or to connect with a higher consciousness for thousands of years. In other words, the vast majority of people take illicit drugs for some form of pleasure. Many millions of Australians have done that. That is the uncomfortable truth. When overzealous governments have responded to a drug problem by banning, it has never worked—ever. Prohibition of alcohol just drove sales and consumption spectacularly underground but it did not stop people drinking alcohol, just like sniffer dogs and overpolicing at music festivals has gone nowhere to stopping drugs like ecstasy being consumed at them. As Commander Pauli from Portugal told me, the police must be part of the solution, not part of the problem. It is beyond time we ended the war on drugs.