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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 38

Mr SOMLYAY (11:41 AM) —Crime and the fear of crime consistently rate among the highest concerns of the Australian public. The Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated that crime costs Australia around $32 billion a year, and drugs are a key factor in that figure. Drugs play a key part in the cost to our families, communities and society as a whole. Drugs do not just harm the health and welfare of the user; the harm also has enormous flow-on effects. Drugs are detrimental to health, welfare and relationships, not just to the user but to the user’s family and friends—all those close to them—and to the community around them.

The use, supply and manufacture of drugs breed economic and social loss for our society and generate poverty, violence criminality and fear. Because the Howard government shares the community’s concerns about drugs and about the violence and criminal activity associated with them, it has been working with the states and territories since 1996 to reduce the incidence of such crime. This government does not seek to usurp the responsibility of the states and territories in the matter but, in a mobile society like Australia, where organised crime transcends state and national boundaries, there is a persuasive case for uniformity in the definition of serious drug offences. Such uniformity will ensure that there are no loopholes between state and federal laws that can be exploited by drug cartels.

As it states in the title, the Law and Justice Legislation Amendment (Serious Drug Offences and Other Measures) Bill 2005 deals with serious drug offences. It aims to bring uniformity and definition to those offences and focuses not on the end user but on organised illicit drug traders and commercially motivated drug crimes—that is, this bill targets those who make a business out of manufacturing and/or trafficking in drugs. It targets those who make a business out of the drug industry, which has such a negative effect on our society and our sense of safety in our communities. To that end, there are four key aspects of the bill: firstly, it provides a clear uniform definition of some drug terms; secondly, it introduces quantitative measures linked to penalties—again, aimed at drug commerce; thirdly, it covers new substances evolving in drug manufacture; and, lastly, it tackles the use of children in the illicit drug industry.

The bill amends that part of the Criminal Code which contains offences targeting conduct considered to be a danger to the community—and that is exactly what the commercial production and trafficking of drugs is. The commercial production and trafficking of drugs constitutes a serious danger to our community. We are not talking about the end user; we are talking about the illicit drug industry, including both the trafficking and the manufacture of drugs.

Most jurisdictions throughout the world have grouped such serious offences together in this way. It is also a feature of the Model Criminal Code developed over recent years by all Australian governments—federal, state and territory—working together to achieve greater national consistency in criminal law. You cannot fight interstate and international drug gangs and cartels with inconsistent laws. Criminals do not respect state boundaries and will obviously use any perceived inconsistencies to escape the courts.

Our aim is to ensure that there are no gaps between federal and state laws that can be exploited by drug cartels. Variations in laws that deal essentially with the same subject not only impede law enforcement efforts but also are a source of potential injustice. That is why it is good to see that this bill provides a consistent terminology for referring to illicit drugs. This defined terminology replaces the current variety of terms used in federal offences. For instance, it introduces the generic terms ‘controlled drugs’, ‘controlled plants’ and ‘controlled precursors’. The specific substances that are covered by each of these categories together with the appropriate quantities are then listed in a separate division of the bill. This means that, as new synthetic drugs appear—as they do—it is easy to amend that list to include both the new drugs and any precursors used in their manufacture. Our laws can then react in a timely way to the evolving chemical processes of the illicit drug industry.

The preface to chapter 6 of the Model Criminal Code, Serious Drug Offences, states that the focus should be on the individuals who make a business out of drug trafficking. The interaction of state, territory and Commonwealth offences is very significant in this area of criminal law. However, while quantitative measures of liability and presumptions of guilt based on possession of trafficable quantities are common in many jurisdictions, they are remarkable in their absence of uniformity.

This bill introduces three quantitative levels of offence in the trafficking and manufacture of drugs, each level with a defined threshold and associated penalty. This allows the maximum penalty for an offence to be structured according to quantity—whether the amount of drugs involved is of a large commercial quantity, a marketable commodity or simply a lesser quantity. Once again, we are targeting drug commerce. But the bill goes a step further than linking specific quantitative measures to the level of offence and the associated penalties. It also allows law enforcement agencies to target those who, by fragmenting their commercial drug dealings, try to avoid liability for the most serious offences. Where a person has trafficked in relatively small quantities of drugs on a number of occasions within a seven-day period, the new laws will allow prosecutors to add those quantities together so that the person can be prosecuted for a single offence involving the total quantity. This closes another loophole for the big end of the drug market.

The third aspect of the bill that I will mention concerns the manufacture of illicit drugs and allows the law to cover evolving drugs, chemicals and processes without the need to wait for new legislation each time a new drug or process is uncovered. Synthetic drugs, such as amphetamines and designer drugs, are manufactured from chemicals called precursors, which usually have quite legitimate uses in industry. This bill introduces new pre-trafficking offences that target illicit dealings in such chemicals for the purpose of illegal drug manufacture. These reforms enable the law to be more responsive to the illicit drug market by allowing new drugs or precursor chemicals to be added very quickly to the list of illicit substances.

The fourth key aspect of this bill is the creation of a regime of offences for adults who exploit children for commercial gain in the illicit drug industry. The offences include supplying illegal drugs to children or using children in any way to facilitate the trafficking or manufacture of drugs. They include using children to sell, transport, guard or conceal either drugs or precursors. The regime also makes it an offence to use children as a means of procuring other children to undertake these tasks. Obviously, these new offences are aimed at those who would corrupt our children and I do not think any member in this House would argue against them. However, the explanatory memorandum to the bill points out an additional reason for ensuring that it is a serious offence to use children in the supply or manufacture of drugs. It points out that children, due to their lower tolerance to chemical toxicity, are particularly vulnerable to serious side effects or death from inhalation, absorption or ingestion of these chemicals.

As the minister said in his second reading speech, drug abuse directly touches the lives of thousands of Australians and indirectly affects us all. It is essential that drug traffickers are met with a consistent and sophisticated array of laws that are not made obsolete or ineffective by the speed of either technological change or criminal initiative. I commend the bill to the House.