The case for a fundamental change in Australia's drug strategy has been rendered even more compelling by the release of a report by some of the nation's most well-informed people about a policy failure that continues to cause countless unnecessary deaths.
The Age has long argued drug policy should primarily be part of the health system, rather than the criminal justice system, and the focus should be harm minimisation rather than prohibition.
Medically supervised injecting centres save lives. Photo: Wolter Peeters
A key element of such a shift, as the report by Australia 21 – an independent public policy research body – states, is decriminalising drug use and regulating the supply and quality of currently illicit substances.
Participants in the report, Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?, include medical experts, a former Supreme Court judge, a former director of public prosecutions and former premiers Jeff Kennett and Bob Carr. Two former heads of corrective services and four former police commissioners and assistant commissioners were also involved.
The group was convened by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer, who said: "While the drug supply market remains unregulated and in the hands of organised criminals who reap huge financial rewards from their endeavours, police will always be chasing their tails or playing catch-up.
"Law enforcement needs to be relieved of the responsibility of treating recreational and social users as criminals. The user end of the illicit drug marketplace needs to be dealt with primarily as a social and health issue."
Mr Palmer says as many as 80,000 arrests of drug users are made annually in Australia. That is a ridiculous waste of scarce policing resources.
The report makes 13 recommendations, including pill testing and medically supervised injecting rooms. Such a safe injecting facility has proved extremely successful in Sydney, but the Victorian government refuses to countenance a trial despite widespread calls for one to be held in Richmond, where heroin users are dying in the streets.
The Andrews government is also refusing to trial pill testing, even though young people are needlessly dying in nightclubs and at music festivals. This is negligent; the government should place lives above fear of a political backlash.
Many politicians privately admit the 50-year "war on drugs", based on prohibition, is one of the biggest failures in the history of public policy. We urge Mr Andrews to emulate Mr Kennett, who has reversed his former opposition to decriminalisation and regulation in light of evidence from overseas that it saves lives and public finances, and reduces crime and drug use.
Mr Palmer points out "decriminalising the possession and cultivation of small amounts of cannabis in South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory has had little or no adverse impact on rates of cannabis use".
The Australia 21 report gives our lawmakers an opportunity to bring in change without causing too much community consternation; it recommends a gradual process, based on two trials of the recommendations – one in a rural setting and one in a city.
Other recommendations include shifting spending from ineffective targeting of drug users to areas of more community benefit; expanding rehabilitation and treatment, particularly in rural and regional areas; and making opium substitution treatment available to all heroin-addicted prisoners.
We are not advocating the misuse of dangerous substances. We are motivated by harm minimisation. We respect evidence and recognise reality. A terrible reality is that our lawmakers are the biggest barrier to harm minimisation.