Is ACT’s Drug Decriminalisation the Best Response?

The ACT will soon become the first Australian jurisdiction where all drugs are officially decriminalised. The Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Act, which passed ACT parliament in October last year, comes into effect next month.

It will remain a criminal offence to be in possession of what is deemed a traffickable quantity of a drug.

The current limit for cannabis possession for personal use in the ACT is 50g dried. From next month, the limit for MDMA and LSD will be β€œ5 doses.” For cocaine, psilocybin-containing mushrooms and illegal amphetamines the limit will be 1.5g and for heroin 1g.

Under the new measures, police can respond to drug possession by issuing a fine or a referral for addiction treatment. They also can still charge a possessor of drugs and require them to attend court.

Image courtesy of @themortz via Unsplash.

These legal changes mark an improvement for both drug users and abusers.

For abusers though, the issue is arguably more one of resources than rights. In New South Wales, for example, drug offenders can be referred to the Drug Court and serve their sentence by way of parole-like supervision along with mandated attendance of addiction treatment programs. However, access to Drug Courts is via a lucky dip-style weekly ballot, because of the insufficient resources relative to the large amount of crime that is attributable to addiction.

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation calls these programs β€œde facto decriminalisation”, and their de facto nature produces irregular outcomes. While in SA only 2% of drug offences are dealt with via the criminal justice system, in WA the figure is 68%. 

Discrimination is another effect of de facto criminalisation. One investigation suggests NSW police are four more likely to pursue criminal charges for cannabis possession against indigenous Australians than non-indigenous Australians.

So de jure decriminalisation, rather than just de facto, may end up being less discriminatory.

The challenge is to simultaneously increase the resources, alongside these legal changes, so that the people police can refer for addiction treatment can actually get access to those programs.

Decriminalisation has been blamed for the nightmarish scenes of open addictive drug use in Californian cities. But it is the under-resourcing of addiction programs that creates scenarios like those. Addicts are abandoned on the street because there is no point in police arresting them if there are no centres where they could be taken if arrested.

Feature image courtesy of @jorgeluis via Unsplash.

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