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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1504

Senator COULTER (3.26 p.m.) —I move:

  That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The failure of the present treatment of cannabis users by imprisonment, the danger to both the users and to society of this way of dealing with this problem, and the lack of action in relation to the following resolution of the 1994 National Conference of the AMA:

"1.That, given the evidence of the physical, psychological and social harm arising from cannabis use, National Conference reaffirms the AMA's determination to support any measures, particularly educational programs, proven to reduce its use.

2.That, because of the health consequences of imprisonment, National Conference considers that prison sentences are inappropriate for offences related to the use or the possession for personal use of small amounts of cannabis; imprisonment should be replaced by compulsory rehabilitation programs.

3.That National Conference recommends that resources be allocated to the investigation of the toxinology of cannabis, with reference to the detection of quantities indicating impairment, particularly with regard to the driving of a motor vehicle.

4.That, to minimise the social harm arising from the possession of a criminal record, National Conference recommends that, in relation to use, or possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use, a criminal conviction should only be recorded for repeat offenders.".

This motion does not imply any endorsement of the taking of drugs. Indeed, all of my colleagues and I are opposed to the taking of any drug for non-therapeutic use. The motion recognises that people, many of whom work at the very coalface of drug addiction and the drug problem, acknowledge that the present treatment of cannabis users as criminals is not working and that other methods of treatment must be tried. The AMA resolution also concedes that throwing people into gaol for using cannabis poses a number of additional problems both for the user and for society as a whole.

  Next to the arms industry, the drug trade is thought to be the biggest industry in the world. One is legal—although one might argue that it should not be so—and the other is illegal, but its illegality has done nothing to stop the trade in drugs. On the contrary, drugs are readily available anywhere, even in those countries with the harshest penalties. The industry supports a vast number of criminals and generates a vast amount of crime. Ask anyone in the know in Australia whether he can get any particular drug, and in about 10 minutes he will have gone out onto the streets and been able to get it.

  Although we spend $258 million each year trying to reduce the availability of drugs, this has been totally ineffective. In the process, the attempt has led to the corruption of police and prison warders, as well as top legal and political figures. Speaking of politicians: a recent poll of federal politicians showed that 52 per cent of senators and members were in favour of the decriminalisation of marijuana, while only 44 per cent were not. When asked whether the politician would be prepared to vote in favour of legislation in line with his or her personal views if there were a conscience vote, 71 per cent said yes, and only 20 per cent said no. Let us have a conscience vote on this issue, for it is indeed a conscience matter.

  Not only does the illicit trade in drugs support directly an enormous criminal element, it also turns otherwise law-abiding citizens who use drugs for personal use into criminals. Much of the theft of electrical and electronic items from homes is carried out in support of a drug habit, and imprisoning carries its own risk. Prisons are not free of drugs. Warders in some prisons have become drug runners. Prisoners may emerge from prison having run up debts, simply from buying drugs to feed their drug habit. On discharge, they are immediately involved in more theft to repay these debts. Injectable drugs are also available in prison, thus exposing inmates to the risk of AIDS, hepatitis and other transmittable infections. Indeed, the first case of drug-induced AIDS in a drug-using inmate of a prison has recently occurred in New South Wales. Imprisonment does not solve the problem of drug taking; it compounds it with other problems as well.

  There is some evidence, and it is growing, that drug addiction may be the outward expression of a genetic predisposition. Again, if this is the case, it is morally wrong to treat these people as criminals and not as people needing medical help.

  The possession of a criminal record by those who have been caught is also a severe penalty for personal users. The survey I have referred to found that 34 per cent of parliamentarians had used cannabis before entering the parliament and that seven per cent had used other illegal drugs. These members and senators know that they are only in this place because they did not get caught. If they contemplate for a moment the consequences for them had the arbitrariness of arrest thrown them into prison, they would have to vote for this motion.

  The AMA resolution is a mild one—indeed, one could say that it is very timid—but it is a step in the right direction. It urges us to minimise the social harm arising from the use and possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use, and that is what this motion is calling on senators to support.

  The resolution emphasises the harm that can arise from the use of cannabis and urges more emphasis to be placed on education programs to reduce its use; it urges that more work be done on the pharmacology and toxicology of cannabis; and it stresses the health consequences of imprisonment and asks for a redirection away from criminal sanctions towards treatment and rehabilitation. I therefore most strongly urge the Senate to support this motion.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! It has been drawn to my attention that an agreement had been reached between the whips as to the time allowed for each speaker. I understand that Senator Coulter was to speak for five minutes, which he quite properly did. On what I have before me, Senator Crowley is to speak for 15, Senator Woods for 15, Senator Lees for five, Senator Chamarette for five and Senator Coulter is to reply for five. There being no objection, that course will be followed.