What Would A Decriminalised Drug Culture In Australia Look Like?

Earlier this week, a cohort of former politicians, prosecutors and police commissioners came out in support of a controversial new report that barracks for the decriminalisation of drug use in Australia. The report, launched by independent think-tank Australia21, entertains the hypothesis of a ‘white market’ model wherein the recreational consumption of narcotics is permitted and regulated — facilitated, even — while the onus of legal blame falls squarely on the heads of traffickers and distributors.

In the words of former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer, the approach “distinguishes between the production and trafficking end of the drug marketplace and the personal use and possession marketplace.” According to Palmer, “The high end production and trafficking obviously is a matter for law enforcement, but the use and possession at the low end of the marketplace must be decriminalised and considered to be a health and social problem rather than a criminal problem.”

Suffice to say, the proposition has ruffled some feathers. Any motion that places pressure on existing drug policy frameworks typically does — which is precisely why so many politicians and legislators tend to avoid the issue in dogma, stonewalling the prospect of a ‘revisionist approach’ and committing blindly to the old, exhausted, and demonstrably ineffective status quo that calls itself the ‘war on drugs’.

But what if the recommendations laid out in the report did come to pass? What would the reality of a decriminalised drug culture in Australia even look like?

One of the fundamental action items of the report — which is titled Can Australia Respond To Drugs More Effectively and Safely? — addresses the need to steer the conversation around recreational drug-taking away from issues of illegality, and toward concerns of public health and safety instead. The paper advocates for the reinterpretation of drug users, both casual and habitual, as potentially endangered and at-risk individuals, rather than negligent criminals who stand in direct affront to the law. It launches an inquiry into the amount of drug-related deaths in Australia, and strives to cut out the heart of that very problem. In keeping with this philosophy, a significant theme of the report and its motives is the safety and wellbeing of those people who choose to use drugs.

So to start with you have the decriminalisation. It is no longer illegal to possess or use what were previously categorised as ‘illegal drugs’. That then opens the door to regulation, a process that Palmer admits is going to be “slow” since “the regulation would have to start at the lowest and softest end of the drug marketplace”, for example cannabis, and work its way up whilst evaluating, reviewing and assessing the results. Nonetheless, the move towards a ‘white market’, away from the criminal underground and toward the above-board sale of narcotics would mean that: “people [now] know what they’re buying… there’s control over the nature and quality of that supply… [the] profits from the marketplace can be taxed, and… that taxable income returned back into the marketplace.”

This idea, of taxable profits on drugs, is an oft-cited benefit in the argument for legalising narcotics such as cannabis. But it could also have a positive knock-on effect as far as the health and safety of drug-users is concerned if that income was reinvested back into things like health and social services, harm minimisation strategies, and the opening of more ‘drug consumption rooms’, where chronic users can smoke or inject substances like heroin safely and under medical supervision. Australia currently has only one medically supervised drug consumption room, in Sydney’s Kings Cross, but there’s already talk of expanding these kinds of facilities to other areas, and even the possibility of ‘ice ingestion rooms’ opening their doors in South Australia.

In turn, the legalisation of possession and use, as well as the shift toward a white market, allows authorities to focus attention on the malignant source of the problem: the suppliers, traffickers, distributors and dealers.

“I didn’t have time for people who used drugs,” says Palmer of his time as a police officer, in a recent interview with ABC News Breakfast. “I realised the futility of the practice… What we now have is badly broken, ineffective and even counterproductive to the harm minimisation aims of Australia’s national illicit drugs policy.”

Palmer suggests that the law’s current, scattershot approach to drug-related activity ends up putting targets above the wrong people’s heads, and automatically criminalises those who are often most in need of assistance. He likewise advocates for the implementation of services such as pill testing at music festivals.

“We need a better policy for those who need better protection, like those at rock festivals,” he says. “Support those like addicts, who have serious health problems, and arrest and punish only those who need to be arrested.”

 

Source: ABC News/BBC
Feature image: USA Today

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