It’s good enough for some US states, New Zealand, Uruguay, Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands. So why not in Australia?

All these jurisdictions have recently changed their laws — or are formally considering doing so — on illicit drugs. They are legalising marijuana for personal or medical use, or changing the regulation of psychoactive substances.

Not here. In this election campaign there has been a tripartisan silence on whether illicit drugs should be legalised, or managed differently. But is the current system really working so well it cannot be improved?

In 2012 not-for-profit group Australia21 released a report recommending decriminalising ecstasy and cannabis through a government-controlled program. Board member Alex Wodak told Crikey both Labor and the Liberals had quickly shied away from a public discussion on illicit drug policy.

“They both said in almost the same words: we do not want to discuss the possibility of changing the policy; ‘we don’t want to talk about it’,” said Wodak, emeritus consultant at Darlinghurst’s St Vincent’s Hospital.

So what have the parties promised on drugs? Coalition health spokesman Peter Dutton said in June that Labor was refusing to act on drugs, calling for a ban on synthetic drugs. There’s not been a peep from the Liberals on the topic since. (Last year, Dutton chided Labor for its “soft policy” on drugs, and wrote an op-ed dismissing arguments to decriminalise some drugs.)

But not everyone in his party shares his views. “It’s not quite so simple as Liberals being gung ho conservatives, or Labor being gung ho radicals … it’s much more complicated than that. The issue is within the parties,” said Wodak.

Labor has similarly not adopted new approaches to drugs this election campaign, despite expressing concern at the misuse of drugs and the impact on the community. In 2012, then-prime minister Julia Gillard joined the Liberals in rejecting calls for decriminalisation. Earlier this year, Labor announced an interim ban on 19 synthetic drug products. It also promised to bring forward legislation to ban their importation.

“A lot of people feel very exasperated about this issue, and feel that the debates that are occurring around the world, are not occurring in Australia.”

As for the Greens, the one-time “radical” party that once supported the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use and pilot programs to make heroin and cannabis available in controlled conditions has now changed tack (perhaps partly in response to hostile, extensive media coverage from News Limited newspapers at previous elections). The Greens have moved away from looking into supplying drug users since 2006, in favour of a “harm minimisation” approach. The Greens now do not support the legalisation of any currently illegal drugs. However, they’re in favour of safe injecting rooms, and emphasise education, counselling, and treatment, rather than criminal penalties for personal users. During this campaign, Senator Richard Di Natale called for for a “drugs summit” to re-examine approaches to drugs.

So why is a discussion of illicit drugs still largely missing? “A lot of people feel very exasperated about this issue, and feel that the debates that are occurring around the world, are not occurring in Australia,” Wodak told Crikey.

This could explain why two minor parties, the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party and the Drug Law Reform Party are running on drug law reform in this election.

This year New Zealand passed a law to regulate the use of psychoactive substances. Two US states — Colorado and Washington — legalised marijuana for recreational use. Uruguay’s Parliament has just passed a bill to legalise legalise pot, with some suggesting this could prove a workable model for others. Proposals for regulating marijuana use are being discussed in Switzerland, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Not Australia.

“There are certain drug-related issues that are difficult to deal with,” said Dr Monica Barratt, research fellow at Curtin University’s Drug Research Institute. “One issue is medical cannabis, and how we can regulate for that, given that the NSW government recently did an inquiry that found that cannabis has medicinal properties.”

“Another concern is that people that might end up in criminal justice system due to low-level drug offence. It begs the question as to how effective introducing penalties is. You need to try and put avenues to get people out of justice system rather than ways of putting them in there,” Dr Barratt told Crikey.

“We don’t know how the psychoactive substances policy will turn out in New Zealand — in terms of increasing our decreasing harms overall — but we need to keep talking about this issues.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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