Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment (Decriminalisation of Possession and Use of Drugs of Dependence) Bill 2022
It is a pleasure to speak on this important bill introduced by Ms Patten to decriminalise the possession and use of drugs of dependence. I would also like to take this opportunity to commend Ms Patten on her unwavering commitment to drug policy reform, which is shared by all Greens parties in Australia and indeed across the world.
Advocating and campaigning for drug and criminal justice reform can be a thankless task—perhaps the most frustrating activity one can undertake in this Parliament—because we all know the evidence, the decades-long failure of the war on drugs, that clearly shows that a criminal justice response to drugs simply does not work. Indeed the current approach is exacerbating drug problems by draining funding from effective health and treatment services, clogging the criminal justice and corrections systems with non-violent offenders and maximising the health dangers of drug use. Yet our governments have steadfastly refused to engage on the issue or entertain evidence-based reforms for political reasons. However, we are also witnessing elsewhere that the rest of the world is now learning from this abject failure and is moving in new policy directions with greater success. We too must start learning and adopting a similar and smarter approach, as outlined in this bill, lest we impose another 50 years of failed drugs policy on yet another generation of Victorians.
The bill proposes to create new summary offences for possession of small quantities or use of a drug of dependence. Under these offences a person must be served with a drug education or treatment notice requiring the person to engage with a drug education or treatment service provider. Compliance with the requirements of a new drug education or treatment notice will mean that no criminal proceeding, admission of guilt or conviction is recorded for their drug use or possession. For those who think this approach sounds radical, what is proposed by this bill is essentially no different from what is already occurring in the caution and diversion programs that have operated in Victoria for a considerable time. However, the existing caution and diversion is not applied consistently as it is applied at the discretion of police, most commonly only for a first offence.
To me what is so irrational about this approach is that a person with repeated drug use offences is clearly more likely to be suffering addiction or from ongoing mental health and social factors leading to their drug use than a first offender, yet police are also more likely to direct those on repeat drug use offences into the criminal justice system rather than diverting them to health and social services to address these underlying issues. Hence we can also observe that the people who end up in the criminal justice and corrections systems on lower level drug use offences are disproportionately from the most vulnerable groups—women, people experiencing homelessness and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians.
Michelle Alexander wrote about mass incarceration in the United States that it was ‘the absence of significant constraints on the exercise of police discretion’ that made the round-up and incarceration of millions of black Americans on non-violent drug offences relatively easy. Because we also know that while drug use is endemic across all corners of society, policing drug use disproportionately focuses on certain public areas. So we see drug dogs outside music festivals and searches of young people around public housing but not of wealthier people at horseracing or celebrities at the Logies. Those without a home will take their drugs in public and will be more likely charged, while people behind closed doors on private property can have their drugs almost with impunity, unless some footage is accidentally uploaded onto social media.
So as Ms Patten referred to in her second reading, this bill is really about taking the necessary step in implementing the aims of Victoria Police’s own drug strategy for 2020–25 to start treating all people’s drug use as first and foremost a health issue requiring a health response rather than focusing on policing. The bill achieves this by removing the option for law enforcement officers to impose criminal sanctions for drug use and possession. Instead police must consistently refer all persons in these circumstances into the more targeted and effective treatment and education services. This shift will lead to much higher demand for these therapeutic and educational services, so if this is passed, the government must also commit to greater investment in these areas, particularly to ensure availability in regional areas. This can be achieved by reversing the current trend of prioritising greater funding for law enforcement and correctional facilities over drug treatment, prevention, education and infrastructure investments in the most marginalised and poorest communities.
However, I believe that reducing drug harm through implementing this bill will also serve to strengthen policing, criminal courts and the corrections system by focusing their role on protecting the community from serious and violent offenders. As the police union themselves have stated, police officers should not be the ones being asked to solve health problems in the community; they should be referring people to those with the necessary therapeutic training and experience. So this is a win-win, it is long overdue, and the Greens strongly support this bill.