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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 13426


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (18:02): I am very glad to have this opportunity to talk about the importance of drug law reform in Australia and to make an argument for the future direction and shape of that reform. It is clear to me, and to many others, that our approach needs to change. We need to treat drug use first and foremost as a health issue, not as a matter of criminal behaviour. We must start by admitting that the so-called 'war on drugs' has been a failure. It has created, reinforced and exacerbated all the harm it was supposed to combat, as wars tend to do.

Drug use and regulation reach into so many aspects of Australian life, a great number of which are beneficial or benign and some of which are very harmful and costly. We should acknowledge at the outset that the taking of substances with a mental and physiological effect is a practice as old as human life. Taking drugs is part of our sophisticated health system, it is part of our everyday social life, and it has always been a behaviour that a small minority of people cannot effectively control. Let's remember that until very recently a fatal addiction to tobacco was commonplace and completely acceptable. Let's not overlook the fact that we continue to celebrate a number of 'high-performing' alcoholics, from John Curtin to Winston Churchill, and that the ability to work hard and play hard, as the saying goes, is certainly not seen as a bad thing, whether drinking to excess occurs at the end of the professional footy season or on the last night in the prime ministerial suite. Indeed, the delivery of opiates through a syringe can equally represent the gift of modern medicine or the depravity of modern addiction.

Let's be honest with ourselves and recognise that some of the worst harm associated with drug use involves substances that are completely legal and that some of the worst social ills caused by drugs are brought about through regulation rather than use. In essence, I accept the argument and the evidence that show our current approach is not working and that by criminalising drug use we have created a self-sustaining system in which terrible health and social outcomes, high rates of incarceration and a highly profitable criminal black market all work to reinforce one another. This is an argument made through an utterly compelling series of chapters in a book published this year called Chasing the scream: the first and last days of the war on drugs by Johann Hari. Hari reminds us that the war on drugs began in the United States as a policy and a program shift without evidentiary basis; a shift fuelled almost entirely by prejudice, stupidity and profound ignorance of medical science.

The only group in society to benefit from the war on drugs is organised criminals. This war has caused great harm to individual drug users and their families; to public health through the spread of disease; and to the wider community through the property crime and violence that is created—quite understandably—when you turn drug users and addicts into criminals, massively increase the cost of drugs and ensure that they are only available through a hardened, greedy, ruthless criminal network. In fact, it is astounding that the metaphor of a war on drugs has survived at all, because any reasonable examination of our approach to illicit drugs shows a self-perpetuating system in which the law enforcement apparatus works to protect the black market conditions and deliver the often crushing oppression of drugs users that together sustain the illicit drug trade with all of its horrors.

Perhaps in extreme circumstances one could make a case for laws that are, to some extent, unfairly punitive or discriminatory if they actually worked to achieve a greater good, but it is becoming clear that our drugs laws do not work. The Global Commission on Drug Policy was established in 2011, and includes former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former US secretary of state George Schulz, four former presidents and leading UK businessman Sir Richard Branson. The commission concluded in 2011 that the global war on drugs has failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies.

It is hard for anyone in Australia to argue that drug prohibition and criminalisation has been a success, when former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer has made the observation that 'Australian police are now better trained, generally better equipped and resourced, and more operationally effective than at any time in our history. But on any objective assessment, policing of the illicit drug market has had only a marginal impact on the profitability of the drug trade or the availability of illicit drugs.'

The greatest harm and the greatest costs are done and caused by tobacco and alcohol, yet they are entirely legal. Indeed, they represent important industries both in Australia and across the globe. In the case of tobacco it is interesting to go back to the National Tobacco Strategy 2004-09, which acknowledges that:

Tobacco is a unique consumer item: tobacco products cause premature death and disability when used as intended by the manufacturer; and they are addictive. No company trying to introduce cigarettes into Australia today would succeed in getting them onto the market.

Slowly, we have made progress in reducing the use of tobacco, most recently through Labor's plain packaging reforms and also in Labor's decision to refuse donations from tobacco companies. We should be proud that Australia has taken a world-leading role in that effort. At the same time, we should be alarmed that tobacco companies continue their efforts to profit from poison, including through the use of investor-state dispute resolution clauses and free-trade agreements.

Of course we know that illicit drugs cause significant direct and indirect harm too. Their use is widespread. The 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report found that 15 per cent of people aged 14 and over had used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months. In that survey it was particularly interesting to note that tobacco use had fallen to 15.8 per cent. Recent cannabis use was at 10.2 per cent. The proportion of people who engage in drinking at a level that creates a lifetime health risk was 18.2 per cent. The fact is that drug use—in some form or another—is ubiquitous in Australian society. Some of it occurs with a beneficial health purpose. Some of it occurs in a relatively low-harm fashion, involving drugs that might be legal or illegal. Some of it is harmful in the extreme, but again this is true of both legal and illicit drugs. For comparison's sake, in terms of disease, in 2010 it was estimated that tobacco smoking was responsible for 8.3 per cent of the burden of disease in Australasia, 2.7 per cent was attributable to alcohol use and a further 2.6 per cent was attributable to the use of illicit drugs.

The clearest distinction when it comes to drug use is an artificial one—namely, the distinction we draw between drugs that are legal and illegal, and the consequences that flow from that distinction are stark. There are 33,000 adult prisoners in Australia, and 12 per cent of them are in jail for illicit drug offences. For women prisoners, the proportion 17 per cent. Three in five prisoners have been in jail before. Jail does not address the health or addiction issues that drug users might have. Indeed, access to illicit drugs and all of the criminal culture that goes with the drug trade exists in prisons in concentrated form. What do we achieve by putting drug users in jail? We increase the disadvantage they will face in future life and we increase the likelihood that they will be in jail again. Who do we inflict this upon? We inflict this further suffering and disadvantage in hugely disproportionate and discriminatory measure on people from remote and regional Australia, on people who experience poverty and mental ill health, on people who are victims of abuse and—most scandalously of all—on Indigenous Australians.

A visitor from another planet given the chance to examine our history of drug discovery, use, commercialisation, regulation and criminalisation would find themselves adrift in a field of paradoxes. They would see that the most harmful drugs are legal and that the illegal drugs are widely available. They would see that the people who need the most help and who are in the most pain are made subject to punishment and that the people who benefit most from the war on drugs are the worst criminals.

I am sorry that this government has shown little interest in the need for radical drug law reform. If anything, there have been moves to obstruct the reform effort and to double down on the existing failed approach. This government was wrong to abolish the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia. As my colleague the shadow assistant minister for health has pointed out, it has been more than 500 days since the Review of Australia's drug and alcohol prevention and treatment services sector was handed to government without that review being released.

The government's decision to cut $800 million from the flexible health funds has flowed through in cuts to the Substance Misuse Prevention and Service Improvement Grants Fund. At the same time, there has been no clarity given as to whether the NGO Treatment Grants Program will be continued beyond the current financial year. Despite those very disappointing actions, there have been signs of bipartisan interest and even progress when it comes to the enormous potential for drug law reform. I have been glad to work with fellow parliamentarians from across the political spectrum in the Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform, and we have been part of a community-wide effort that is delivering positive change in relation to medicinal cannabis.

There is scope for so much more positive change in this area of policy regulation and program investment. Australia has spent far too long following the track blazed by some incredibly misguided and incompetent American bureaucrats. Now there are states in America and nations in Europe, like Switzerland, that are showing what can be achieved by breaking through what has been a terrible fog of war.

I encourage members of this place and members of the general public alike to put aside your assumptions and really open your mind to the evidence on this subject, to reconsider your acceptance of the status quo and to look at the real story of the war on drugs. Johann Hari's book is an excellent place to start where he writes:

Drugs are not what we think they are. Drug addiction is not what we have been told it is. The drug war is not what our politicians have sold it as for one hundred years and counting. And there is a very different story out there waiting for us when we are ready to hear it—one that should leave us thrumming with hope.