Greens leader Richard Di Natale is planning a summit at Parliament on drug policy.
It was the experience of an 18-year-old kid – drug-addled, broken and belatedly crying out for help – that helped inspire a future Greens leader to look for a new way ahead.
The teen was "shooting up almost every drug available" when he decided he wanted help, Richard Di Natale says. They found there was none. "Having him then not being able to get a bed – and then having him ending up in extensive care unit with a horrible infection as a result of injecting drug use and needing heart surgery … that's enough to motivate you to do something," he says.
That experience six years ago, while working as a drug and alcohol clinician in Geelong, was emblematic of what Senator Di Natale came to see as a misdiagnosed problem and a failed system.
Illustration: Matt Golding
The former GP believes individual drug use is a health, not a criminal, problem. To some extent, he is talking about decriminalising drugs. But the question of whether to remove criminal sanctions for all drug use, whether to include some of the supply chain, and where to direct police action, are difficult problems, politically and practically.
In a bid to spark change, he is planning a series of events across the country culminating in a summit, drawing experts from across the globe, to be held at Parliament early in the 2016 election year.
"Given my background, if I don't do something about this issue in this place then I expect no one will," he says.
"As a leader of what I'd like to think of as a major party, we are the first major party in I don't know how long that's actually taking this issue on, and I think that's significant. My goal is to begin a national debate about the best responses to what is a very difficult problem."
The push – backed by Liberal Sharman Stone and Labor's Melissa Parke, with Senator Di Natale the co-conveners of a parliamentary group for drug law reform – follows the Greens leader taking a self-funded study trip to Portugal over winter.
In 2000, an estimated 100,000 Portuguese were addicted to heroin and rates of blood-borne diseases such as HIV were the highest in Europe. The government responded with a radical change – drugs would remain illegal, but possession of up to 10 days' supply for personal use would be treated as an administrative issue.
Panels of legal, social work and health professionals would decide how they were to be treated. Funding was largely re-directed so that just 10 per cent was spent on policing and 90 per cent on prevention, treatment and harm reduction.
Since then there has been a slight increase in the number of people who have tried drugs, but a significant decline in the number of people who use persistently or become addicted. Compared with neighbouring countries, Portugal is the only one to have seen a fall in problematic drug use.
A study published in the British Journal of Criminology reported that overdoses and the number of new drug-related HIV cases fell dramatically.
Some other jurisdictions have followed part or all this model. Earlier this month, Ireland announced it would introduce medically supervised injecting rooms and decriminalise possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.
Irish Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said: "I am firmly of the view that there needs to be a cultural shift in how we regard substance misuse if we are to break this cycle and make a serious attempt to tackle drug and alcohol addiction."
Senator Di Natale believes there is a growing push for a similar change in Australia. Among those who have called for a shift in thinking are former Victorian Police commissioner Ken Lay, now the head of a national taskforce looking at responses to ice, and former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer.
The Greens leader says he has an open mind on where the summit will lead, but that the Portuguese approach is compelling.
"I think the principle there of treating individual drug use as a health and social issue, rather than a criminal issue, is very, very sound and I think there is strong evidence to support it," he says.
Speakers at the Canberra summit are expected to include João Goulão, a Portuguese doctor who was an architect of the change in that country, New Zealand's Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, who is looking at ways to reduce use of synthetic drugs sometimes known as "legal highs", and journalist Johann Hari, author of the best-selling book Chasing the Scream.
It will be preceded by a series of roundtables across the country, bringing together policy makers, law enforcement officials and health and social service providers.
One of the issues to be examined is the economics of combating drug use. Senator Di Natale cites figures from 2009/10, when Australian governments spent $1.7 billion tackling the issue. Three times as much was spend on law enforcement than on treatment.
"It is a very economically irrational approach at the moment," he says.
"I understand how difficult the topic is, I absolutely understand the significant harms associated with the abuse of some of these substances, but my concern is we're not responding in a way that minimises the harms ... in fact, sometimes I'm concerned what we're doing is just creating harm."