Draconian drug laws should be changed

Police are now using drug sniffer dogs at music festivals

From your morning coffee to your afternoon alcoholic drink with friends, drugs play a significant role in society. However, the war against drugs that has plagued society has resulted in a differentiation between the legal drugs we consume and the drugs that are criminalised by the government.

According to 2016 government data, 8.5 million people — 43% of Australians — have used recreational drugs and illegally obtained pharmaceuticals for recreational or self-medication uses.

Due to drug criminalisation, users of cannabis, ecstasy and anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) experience immense difficulty and discrimination in their daily lives, with people of colour and working class, Aboriginal and queer people experiencing the full extent of drug laws.

The most pertinent issue in drug law reform at the moment is the increased use of sniffer dogs by police, particularly at train stations, bars and festivals, with plans to introduce dogs into public schools. Yet South Australian Police figures from 2016–17 showed only a 15% accuracy rate on sniffer dog searches.

Sniffer dog reliability has been brought into serious contention after the NSW Police’s announcement that they would refuse entry to festival ticketholders if a dog indicated drugs were present — even if no drugs were found on the person in a search.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge has been at the forefront of drug law reform, together with the popular drug reform group Sniff Off, which is considering legal options to challenge police and their use of sniffer dogs.

Supporters of drug reform have instead been in favour of pill testing, which seeks to promote harm minimisation and reduce the likelihood of overdosing when confronted by police.

Pill testing was formally trialled at the Groovin’ the Moo festival in Canberra in May. Of 128 tests conducted, two potentially deadly pills were found, as well as many others cut with paint, toothpaste and artificial sweeteners. Only 50% were found to be pure MDMA.

The NSW government has enacted random drug testing for drivers that can detect cannabis and methamphetamine, but does not test for benzodiazepines and cocaine. Shoebridge labels this the “class-war on drugs”, where more expensive, elite, illicit drugs are not tested for, yet more affordable drugs, mainly used by working-class people are tested for.

These tests detect the presence of drugs within your system, but do not test for actual impairment. Licences can be lost if, for example, a test picked up traces of cannabis from a joint smoked a week earlier. Ideally, police should be testing for drug impairment in the same way they currently test for alcohol.

However, the path to drug law reform is a long one. The SA state government just announced plans to increase penalties for cannabis possession, quadrupling the fine to $2000 with a new maximum prison sentence of two years — the same penalty for drugs such as ecstasy and heroin. However this proposal is extremely controversial and is expected to fail.

Drug law reform has been gaining significant media attention, with the myths surrounding drug driving tests and sniffer dogs being exposed, as well as the successes of festival pill testing schemes.

The Greens have taken a public stance on drug law reform. Just last week, Reclaim the Streets held a large protest festival at the Downing Centre courts in Sydney, protesting the use of sniffer dogs and encouraging moves towards harm minimisation and drug law reform.

Those in favour of drug law reform seek harm minimisation and liberation from outdated laws, to stop drug laws being used as a pretence to harass the working-class, Aboriginal people, queer people, youth, and people of colour.