Drug decriminalisation laws were passed by an Labor-Greens ACT government and came into effect on August 28. This will mean less drug-related deaths, less normally law-abiding citizens arrested and more time for police to deal with real criminals.
On the same day, New South Wales Labor Premier Chris Minns told the Murdoch media Labor is not contemplating drug decriminalisation. However, if it is voted back in for another term, it might contemplate it.
A number of NSW Labor MPs, who have spoken in favor of drug law reform are likely to be disappointed. They know that more young people will likely die at festivals.
Minns told the Daily Telegraph that he had “no mandate” to follow the ACT.
The Uniting Church expressed its shock at his decision. The Uniting Synod of NSW and the ACT asked Minns “to not slam the door on evidence-based drug reform in this term of government”, as families experiencing drug dependency “can’t afford to wait years”.
Head in the sand
Before taking office, NSW Labor held out a promise to hold a drug law reform summit, as Bob Carr’s government held the NSW Drug Summit of 1999, that led to the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross, which has saved thousands of lives.
But Minns told the Daily Telegraph: “We need to let the [future] drug summit do its job. We don’t have a mandate to decriminalise. I couldn’t do that without the support of the people of the state of NSW.”
But why wouldn’t NSW support this lifesaving measure when the ACT is?
A plea to see reason
“We hoped for better. We waited nearly three years for the previous government to respond to the ice inquiry,” Reverand Simon Hansford, outgoing moderator of the Uniting Church Synod in NSW and the ACT said on August 31.
“We believed this new government would urgently deliver a summit that heard from the experts and those with lived experience and lead to evidence-based policy decisions on drug reform.
“Decriminalisation must be on the table at the drug summit.”
Meanwhile, the Pennington Institute’s Annual Overdose Report 2023 has noted that one person dies of an unintentional drug-induced death every four hours in Australia.
Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001: then 1% of the population was heroin dependent. Today it has one of the lowest drug-related deaths and HIV infection rates in Europe.
Hansford pointed to the Gladys Berejiklian government-commissioned “Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’” which recommended decriminalisation. Berejiklian didn’t act on this and neither did her successor Dominic Perrottet.
Uniting launched the NSW drug decriminalisation campaign, Fair Treatment, in 2018. More than 70 organisations signed on, including the NSW Bar Association, NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Harm Reduction Australia, Unharm, NUAA, Justice Action and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.
“It’s too early to rule anything out and it will undermine the goodwill of those with lived experience of drug use, their families, those on the frontline in our emergency services, and the many academics, alcohol and drug experts who have all been hoping” that Labor will progress the warranted drug law reform policy, Hansford said.
Praise be, Pettersson
ACT Health said on August 28 that eleven of the most popularly used illicit substances have been decriminalised to “encourage people who use drugs to access health services”.
The department lists the limit amounts of each of these drugs that, if exceeded, will result in a “simple drug offence notice”, rather than a criminal charge.
It can be expected that, as in Portugal and the US state of Oregon, there will be less drug-related harms, drug-related deaths and drug-related crime.
Nevertheless, Murdoch’s headline was “Canberra to Become a Fantasyland for Parties as ACT Decriminalises Drugs” and the article suggests “Sydneysiders are expected to flock to Canberra for drug-fuelled parties”.
This sort of conservative propaganda encourages the continuing war on drugs, which prominent former heads of state and others have condemned as a failure since 2011.
ACT Labor MLA Michael Pettersson, who championed the drug decriminalisation laws, did what many MPs are too gutless to do. He successfully oversaw the law change, on January 31, 2020, to allow the personal possession of cannabis and a limited home grow of plants.
Pettersson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last October that “drug laws have not been able to stop the use of drugs, and they do not stop people from using drugs”. He said other Australian jurisdictions needed “political will and activism” for reform.
The fight continues
NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann will be continuing to push for the reform with her forthcoming drug decriminalisation bill. Other MPs, such as Legalise Cannabis MLC Jeremy Buckingham and Independent MP Alex Greenwich, are likely to support the Greens’ move.
Faehrmann has told Sydney Criminal Layers, many times since Labor took office, that there’s no reason to even wait for the drug summit, as the ice inquiry findings and those of the NSW coronial inquiry into drug-related deaths at festivals both endorse the policy.
“All the experts are saying that we’ve got the insight we need for best practice drug law reform”, Faehrmann said. “Yet here we are being told that we need a drug summit.”
[A version of this article was published by Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]