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:
• 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 decriminalisation.
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.
● Hans Willink is a former army officer, IT director and political candidate. This article was first published as mercury Talking Point on September 24: HERE