On Wednesday 23 February 2022, Fiona Patten MP introduced a Bill into the Victorian Parliament to decriminalise drug use and possession in a small quantity.
Ms Patten, who is the state member for the Northern Metropolitan Region and the leader of the Reason Party, has long advocated treating drug use not a criminal issue but as a health issue with a health solution. She notes that World Health Organization has recommended the decriminalisation of injecting and other drug use, in partnership with the United Nations, calling for ‘reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes’.
The Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment (Decriminalisation of Possession and Use of Drugs of Dependence) Bill 2022 aims to reduce harm and save lives. The benefits would also include a reduction in costs to the criminal justice system and in acute health care, Ms Patten says, as well as reducing stigma and improving on other outcomes. ‘This approach can provide that crucial early intervention that could change a young person’s trajectory.’
The Bill, which will be debated in the house on Wednesday 9 March, proposes that instead of issuing a criminal charge, police will issue a ‘drug education or treatment notice’ that will send people to support, not court, for their drug issue. Hence, compliance with a drug education or treatment notice will result in a health intervention for the individual, rather than in criminal outcome.
Supporting the Bill, Ms Patten pointed to the research evidence, which indicates that decriminalisation of drug use:
- reduces the costs to society, especially the criminal justice system costs
- reduces social costs to individuals, including improving employment prospects
- does not increase drug use
- does not increase other crime
- reduces the damaging stigma attached to people who use drugs.
Victoria Police do currently provide drug diversion, but only in limited circumstance, and the gaps are obvious Ms Patten said. The goal of the bill is to ensure everyone is treated equally and those that need the most help receive it.
The Victoria Police Drug Strategy 2020 – 2025 also recognises that drug problems ‘are first and foremost health issues’. As such, it ‘prioritises stopping the entry of illicit drugs and precursor chemicals and shutting down local manufacturing’ and yet of the 32,860 drug arrests in Victoria last year, 80 percent were for drug use or possession only. Decriminalising drug use and possession would free up more police time to focus on priority areas.
Ms Pattern also noted strong public support for decriminalisation, saying that ‘most of us want people who use drugs to get the help and treatment they need. Many countries around the world have already decriminalised drug use and possession.’
Self Help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC)
Ms Patten’s Bill to decriminalise drug use and possession in a small quantity has the full support of the Self-help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC). The centre’s CEO, Heather Pickard – who is known to ANMF members through her work at the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria (NMHPV) and also presentations at ANMF conferences – has spent nearly three decades supporting people to overcome issues with abuse and misuse of alcohol and other drugs. ‘Criminalisation of drug use has not worked in the past,’ she said. ‘We have to be prepared to have a major paradigm shift in the way we look at problematic drug use, and to see it as a health issue, to be treated in a similar way other health issues are managed in communities and health systems.’
Ms Pickard emphasised the importance of the bill’s delineation between private use and intentional, finance-driven drug trafficking, also noting that decriminalisation and referral into drug treatment can only work if we consider the extra demand on drug and alcohol services. ‘It will increase the demand on treatment services, so we need to make sure that the treatment pathways people are referred to have the muscle and the breadth to be responsive to that increase in demand.’
SHARC provides residential support and family services for people in recovery, and develops workforce capacity in the alcohol and other drugs sector. They also have an advocacy role for service users and their families. ANMF (Vic Branch) contributes funding to SHARC for Oxford Houses, which provide secure, supportive and affordable medium-term housing for nurses and midwives recovering from problematic alcohol and other drug use.
More information on Ms Patten’s Bill can be found at decrim.com.au, along with details if members wish to write to their local MPs in support.