Greens MP Colleen Hartland responds to government drugs bill | Australian Greens

Greens MP Colleen Hartland responds to government drugs bill

For more than 50 years we have been responding to the drug problems with tough legislation, tough policing and prison sentences. It simply has not worked. When we crack down on drugs, people find other drugs and other ways of getting them.
Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 1:00pm
Colleen Hartland

Response to government's Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Miscellaneous Amendment Bill 2017 (2nd reading speech)

Ms HARTLAND (Western Metropolitan) — Whenever I speak about drug policy I always like to start off whatever I am saying by talking about alcohol and point out that every day 15 people die from alcohol-related disease and that every day 430 people are hospitalised because of alcohol. I also point out that in terms of prescription drugs 82 per cent of all overdose deaths — that is, of the 384 investigated by the coroner in 2014 — were from legal prescribed drugs. When we are dealing with illicit drugs I think we also have to remember the incredible damage done by what we refer to as legal drugs, such alcohol and prescription drugs.

For more than 50 years we have been responding to the drug problems with tough legislation, tough policing and prison sentences. It simply has not worked. When we crack down on drugs, people find other drugs and other ways of getting them. We have had half a century of battling drugs with law and order and the drug problem has simply got worse. I think it is time to start doing things differently. This should not be a debate about whether drug use is good or bad or whether drug users are good or bad people. We need to acknowledge that people use drugs whether we like it or not. And if people are going to use drugs, it makes sense to minimise the impact this has on themselves, their families and society in general.

Decriminalising drug use is not supported by just the Greens. It was called for in Australia21's recent report and has been supported by former police commissioners, officers in law enforcement and Jeff Kennett. This is one of the few times that I would say that I agree with Jeff Kennett.

Ms Shing — Let the record reflect that.

Ms HARTLAND — Absolutely. Thank you. It is also called for by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which represents about 40 former presidents and prime ministers around the world.

This bill is a good example of what does not work. Let us imagine that it passes and synthetic drugs are no longer available in tobacconists and sex shops. Will the people who are now buying these substances decide it is time to stop taking drugs, get on the straight and narrow and get jobs as accountants — as long as the accountants are not also buying synthetic cannabinoids? Probably not, because this bill attempts to limit supply without limiting demand. I can see the Herald Sun tomorrow with the headline that someone in this chamber will supply: 'Greens soft on drugs — want to give our children drugs'. It is quite the opposite. We know the damage done by drugs, but we also know that law and order does not work and that we need to be looking at harm minimisation. People will just buy their drugs elsewhere, or on the internet.

We can get an idea of what might happen if this bill is passed by looking at what happened in Blackburn in England when 'head shops' which sold synthetic cannabinoids were shut. At first people went to shops in neighbouring areas and within days a street trade was started up. As is explained in an editorial in the International Journal of Drug Policy:

The same users bought the same synthetic cannabinoids from an existing street dealer of class A drugs. He had bought up the head shop stock and split labelled commercial packages into smaller, unlabelled 'deals' … Some head shops appeared to have operated some safer practices, such as not serving customers aged under 18, selling labelled products with listed ingredients and not offering promotions. The street dealer, in contrast, employed a team of 'runners' who delivered synthetic cannabinoids to customers of any age across the town … The users he served were amongst the most vulnerable people in the area …

We know that banning drugs does not stop drug use. So what does work? Some 40 countries around the world have at least partially decriminalised drug use. This has not led to widespread drug use. In fact studies have found that the law makes very little difference to the rates of illicit drug use. What decriminalisation does is reduce the rates of drug users dying, catching HIV and filling our hospitals and our courts. In Portugal drug use was decriminalised in 2001 and drug-related HIV rates dropped by 90 per cent. Their overdose rate is now a fraction of the European Union average. In Switzerland people with a heroin addiction can go to a doctor who prescribes heroin, not to give them a good time but to treat their heroin addiction and minimise its impact on them and others.

All these countries treat drugs not as a criminal justice issue but as a health issue. Many of them also minimise the impact of drug use through sensible measures like supervised injecting rooms. I still find it beyond my understanding why this government is not considering a trial of a supervised injecting room in Richmond. I presume government members have read the coroner's report. The coroner is quite clear about what needs to happen, and I do not understand why the government is not taking that advice. Why do we not have pill testing and more money for frontline services? In the budget there is provision for 30 new treatment beds, yet the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, one of the leading drug advocacy organisations in the state, says that we actually need 300 beds. When someone says at 8 o'clock in the morning, 'I need drug treatment', goes along to a service and is told that they will have to wait eight weeks for an appointment let alone actually get into a treatment bed, that is not the way we should deal with it.

The Greens support decriminalisation of drug use, but it does not mean, as I have already said, that we think drugs should be freely available. Far from it. We think that access to drugs should be carefully monitored and should depend on how harmful the drug is. We will be voting on this bill clause by clause because there are some clauses we can support. We support the reduction in the quantity of ice considered a commercial quantity because ice is such a shockingly dangerous drug. We also support opioid substitution therapy in police cells. We were actually quite surprised that that was not available already. This is currently allowed in prisons and is simply a pragmatic and sensible way of dealing with people with substance abuse issues. Police cells are not a place to detox.

The Greens believe that in controlling the drug supply we need to look at how harmful each drug is. In the past Victoria has tried to ban drugs on a substance-by-substance basis, and it does not work. Today's bill attempts to deal with this by banning everything. We suggest that a better approach would be to allow the manufacturers or importers to prove that a drug is safe. This puts the onus on the industry, not the government, and allows the government to control sales instead of the black market. Again, this is not just the Greens suggesting this. This is exactly what happens in New Zealand, just on the other side of the Tasman. It is early days for New Zealand's new approach to drugs, and it is not a system without teething problems, but it is an approach based on a world of evidence. And when what you are doing now is not working, why not try something new?

Whenever we deal with these kinds of bills there is always that difficulty that we know that the Greens will be slapped around and will be told that we just support all kinds of drugs. We do not. I live in Footscray. I have seen the heroin street trade and I have seen the damage done, and I would do anything to encourage someone not to use drugs. But let us be realistic: it is happening. We need treatment beds and we need harm minimisation. We do not need a law and order approach to drug problems.