Australia's Capital Territory Makes History with New Drug Reform

The War on Drugs

Australia is no stranger to the war on drugs. With over 1.5 billion dollars invested into Australia’s drug criminalisation, per year, the war on drugs is a great priority of the Australian Government. With a myriad of legislation including, but not limited to, the Narcotic Drugs Act 1967 (Cth), Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 (Cth), Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 and Narcotic Drugs (Licence Charges) Regulation 2016 (Cth), Australia drug laws have a retributive purpose; to criminalises and punish the possession, cultivation or trade of drugs. The status of Australia’s drug use must be rather low then, right? In reality, despite copious amounts of funding, legislation and police efforts, the Australian public spends over 10 billion dollars on drugs annually, and consumed an estimated 15.7 tonnes of methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and heroin in 2020–21, according to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

Clearly, the retributive attempts of the law to punish drug users are not an adequate enough deterrent to stop the Australian public from consuming potentially dangerous drugs. As such, the nation’s capital city, Canberra, has taken a leap towards decriminalisation. This follows the Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Act 2022, which aims to prioritise harm reduction.

What is Decriminalisation?

 Decriminalisation, not to be confused with legalisation, allows wrongdoers to be dealt with by the law from a civil standpoint, rather than a criminal standpoint. This means that, in most cases, perpetrators may no longer face jail time for small possessions of illicit drugs. Whilst this may seem like a radical switch for many Australians, decriminalisation has already proven itself to reduce addiction and death internationally, the most renowned example being Portugal’s leap towards decriminalisation in 2001.

In Canberra, as of 28 October 2023, it will not be a criminal offence to carry drugs, including but not limited to, 1.5 grams of amphetamines, cocaine, methylamphetamine and 3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (commonly known as ‘MDMA’) 50 grams of Cannabis and 1 gram of Heroin. Rather than be arrested, people found in possessions of these quantities may be issued with a “simple drug offence notice”. The person will then be able to pay a $100 fine or attend an assessment and harm reduction session.

Why is Decriminalisation Important and What are the Next Steps?

Criminalising an issue without addressing the social and political drivers that make Australians susceptible to dangerous drug use does not work to eradicate the problem. Similarly, criminalising the drug supply, without attempting to alleviate drug demand, is a short-term, and unjust approach. In order to increase the safety of our communities and decrease harm, decriminalisation steers wrongdoers away from the Criminal Justice System and allows for education and medical attention where needed.

So, what are the next steps for decriminalisation in Australia? Australia needs to further address the harms associated with drug composition – that is, all the substances inside the drugs sold through illegal trade. One of the greatest catalysts for a bad drug reaction is the quality of the drugs – and when illicit drugs like MDMA are not sold in pharmacies and by medical professionals, they cannot be regulated. As such, drug users may find that their substances actually include baby powder, glass and sawdust. One answer to this is pill testing, again relating back to allowing Australians to educate themselves on the substances they intake and seek medical help.

Whether these changes come, we’ll just have to see.

If you need support in relation to your drug use, call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.

If you or someone you know wish to discuss this issue further, please do not hesitate to contact our offices on 02 8999 9809.

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