MPs spark discussion on drug policy

Throughout most of the world, governments acknowledge that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed. Progressive governments are debating what will replace it. In Australia, some federal and state MPs are leading the way. Campaigners are planning a national drug summit for 2013.

MPs spark discussion on drug policy

About 14 people attended this meeting, including several Senators and House of Representatives politicians. Convenor, Dr Mal Washer MP of Perth, welcomed participants.

While some people in Parliament are keen for change, drug law reform is not seen in general as a crucial issue and reform is very unlikely in the foreseeable future. It is therefore essential to change the nature of the debate, and create a public climate to which the politicians must respond. The example of David Hicks was given: it took five years, but when Hicks’ harsh treatment by the US Government, and his abandonment by the Australian Government, became a topic of pub talk, public opinion relatively quickly swung against the government, which was forced to change its position and “do something” about getting the one and only Australian out of Guantanamo Bay.

Prof Bob Douglas reported on activities of the Australia 21 company, including its second Roundtable on Illicit Drugs at Melbourne University on 6 July 2012. The purpose of this one was to consider the experiences of Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden. A report of the meeting is due to be distributed in September, and A21 chair Paul Barratt hopes that widespread community discussion will follow release of the report.

A new A21 director, Mick Palmer, spoke convincingly from his experience as an NT police officer, AFP police commissioner and legal practitioner that the present policy was more harmful than beneficial. Another A21 director, Dr Alex Wodak of St Vincents Hospital in Sydney, described recent developments in South American countries where, increasingly, the impact of the war on drugs is being questioned. This was evident in the recent Summit of the Americas, which basically descended into the US and Canada maintaining the drugs prohibition policy, which has failed, against the other countries in the Americas.

Even US President Obama has stated it is now legitimate to have a debate about drug legislation. And conservative Canadian Prime Minister Harper recently said the war on drugs was not working. Pubic opinion polls throughout the Americas and Europe are now swinging towards support for legalising the smoking of cannabis, seen as a largely ‘victimless’ crime on the part of the smoker.

However in Australia, Liberal National Senator Sue Boyce thought it unlikely that the Coalition parties would support reform in the foreseeable future. Dr Washer suggested that the Labor Caucus had rejected the idea of a Private Member’s Bill, and said that there was no enthusiasm for any initiatives in the Attorney-General’s area.

Senator Dr Richard Di Natale of the Greens, who (like Dr Washer) is a medical doctor and also public health/drug specialist, was of the view that reform needs to be incremental and evidence-based, with careful regard to use of language in framing the debate. Drug law reform should be presented as a health issue and a rights issue, he believes.

Labor MHRs Melissa Parke of Perth, Geoff Lyons of Tasmania, and Andrew Leigh of Canberra all showed support by attending, as did Liberal MHR Judi Moylan.

One of the original founders of the concept of a parliamentary group for drug law reform, former NSW MP Ann Symonds, reiterated how important it was to keep such groups going in the State/Territory legislatures.

Dr Wodak made the point that internationally support has come from all sides of politics and that in fact the ‘conservative’ side may have more chance of bringing about change (the ‘Nixon in China’ syndrome, whereby it took a Republican to develop rapprochement with the communist nation).

Youth adviser to A21 Vivienne Moxham-Hall spoke of the harmful effects on young people who are criminalised by law enforcement, sometimes for really minor amounts of cannabis, which prevents them getting certain jobs, standing for parliament, becoming police officers. “Obama, Gillard and Abbott would not be where they are today if they had been caught,” she said, referring to suggestions that all three national leaders have intimated they might have experimented with a puff or two of green weed when young. A criminal charge can have a devastating effect on the career of young people, yet most young people experiment with drugs at some point, as they experiment with a range of experiences in their teenage years and early 20s. Dr Washer agreed that young people pay a disproportionately high price for offending the current laws against minor use of cannabis.

A question was raised as to how you would deal with over-use of marijuana, were it freely available under a decriminalized, regulated, state-managed scheme. The reply was that now, when the drug is criminal, people do not seek treatment for addiction and over-use; if decriminalized, there would be no stigma and no jail sentence attached to seeking help for a medical problem. It is believed better to have a controlled state of distribution than one where the profit goes to motorcycle gangs and organized crime, which of itself generates ‘wars’ on the streets of our cities.

A national drug summit is being considered for 2013 (or, possibly, a national youth summit on drugs). There was discussion re timing in an election year. The need for an overall communications strategy for the drug law reform campaign in Australia became very evident, involving and with clear roles for all relevant organisations eg AMA, the various Drugs Councils of Australia, Family and Friends for Drug Law Reform, police officers who support reform, Civil Liberties Australia, etc.


– report by Dr Kristine Klugman OAM, President, Civil Liberties Australia
http://www.cla.asn.au/ (several MPs supporting drug law reform are CLA members)

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