TABLING OF THE PARLIAMENTARY JOINT COMMITTEE ON LAW ENFORCEMENT'S FINAL REPORT INTO CRYSTAL METHAMPHETAMINE (ICE) - Wednesday, 28 March 2018
On behalf of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, I present the final report of the committee on crystal methamphetamine (ice) together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
The tabling of this final report of the inquiry into crystal methamphetamine is the culmination of three years of work by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement. Over the course of the inquiry, the committee has spent time with a diverse range of communities from Mt Gambier to Caboolture. We listened to communities tell their stories and their desperate need for treatment and family support. The committee's first report was handed down in September 2017 and focused on the role of law enforcement in drug strategies. This final report focuses on the importance of rehabilitation and treatment services. Our regional and rural communities are not only at greater risk but lack the resources to educate and rehabilitate their own. Particular stories have struck me—parents who are desperate for the opportunity to help their children and parents who have lost their sons or daughters. Visiting St Vincent's Hospital in both Melbourne and Sydney, we heard of the impact on emergency services and front-line staff—the increased violence and new issues which are arising from a growing rate of users.
Everyday Australians see the devastating impact of methamphetamine use and feel powerless to help. We cannot be blind to the fact that supply has not diminished and that new illicit synthetic drugs will continue to appear. How we respond to the current situation is critically important in order to support our community in the foreseeable future. Fundamental to these recommendations, therefore, is adequate, stable, long-term funding that creates lasting partnerships and reliable access to treatment. Long waiting lists for treatment services are exacerbating our community's ability to help their own. Our regional and rural communities feel the brunt of this, with many witnesses expressing frustration at waiting lists and delays in receiving that adequate treatment. Drug treatment services themselves are stretched throughout Australia. That is why the committee has recommended strengthening these services with funding to increase capacity and equitable access.
Harm reduction is an important part of an integrated National Drug Strategy and of critical long-term strategies across the board to minimise the impact of drug and alcohol abuse. The reality in Australia is that harm has not been reduced but has rather increased. Along with an increase in supply, it shows that current policies in this country are not working.
So, despite this inquiry being conducted by our law enforcement committee, we argue that a law enforcement approach alone is not the answer to this problem. We must address the cause and not just the symptoms.
As the evidence from Dr Alex Wodak revealed, the most important strategy to reduce methamphetamine related problems in Australia is by expanding the capacity and improving the quality of treatment. Our committee recommendations recognise this. They emphasise appropriate treatment, funding and the need for a national quality framework for alcohol and other drug treatment services, including public not-for-profit and for-profit residential rehabilitation.
We also recommend that the Commonwealth government refer to the Productivity Commission an inquiry into the costs and benefits of the National Drug Strategy as currently implemented. The current policy is not working. The Commonwealth, state and territory governments need to rebalance alcohol and other drug funding across the three pillars of the National Drug Strategy—supply, demand and harm reduction strategies. To ensure investment is weighted towards reducing harm minimisation, an analysis of the shortfalls of the current policy is required.
As a committee, we learnt that successful strategies are contingent on the relationships built between health workers, law enforcement, education providers and the community. These relationships are critical to ensuring that individuals are diverted before becoming addicted or receive timely relevant information and treatment. That is why the committee very much supports drug courts, which exist in some states around Australia, and their role in drug diversionary schemes. These schemes move people away from incarceration to give them a chance to address their drug problem. Public awareness campaigns also play a pivotal role. But we recommend that these engender compassion towards drug users and target and inform those people, with the objective of encouraging them to seek treatment and support.
Lessons can be learnt from the national HIV campaign and the media guidelines about suicide. The implementation of the Australian Press Council's standards provides an excellent model for governments and media agencies to develop appropriate and compassionate coverage of drug related content. Government messaging and media coverage, if implemented effectively, could significantly reduce the harm associated with the use of crystal methamphetamine by promoting that drug users seek treatment—rather than simplistic and punitive messaging that stigmatises individuals and prevents them from seeking treatment. We must break down the stigma.
Acknowledging that the current policies are not working despite government funding in this space, the committee, as I said, recommends that the Commonwealth government refer to the Productivity Commission an inquiry into the cost and benefits of the current policy.
This committee also visited Portugal. That provided an invaluable insight into how a country's decriminalised framework has improved drug users' health and saved lives. Whilst the committee has not reached a concluded view about a decriminalised approach for methamphetamine, it is worth noting the number of countries that have adopted a decriminalised framework for drug use and also what has been done in some Australian states and territories to decriminalise cannabis use and possession.
Seventeen years ago, Portugal decided to stop persecuting drug users and addicts and decriminalised all forms of drugs when people are caught with a small amount. Instead, users are only punishable under administrative law, not criminal law, giving them a fine for recreational use, for example, instead of a jail sentence. If they are an addict, they would be encouraged to subscribe to a government funded treatment program, which was free and readily available. For me, the most enlightening factor of Portugal's change of policy was that it meant that drug users should, above all, not be labelled and marginalised and it focused instead on the state approaching addicts to encourage them to seek treatment. It was a complete breakdown of the stigma that prevents drug users from coming forward to seek treatment.
I think there's a misconception about decriminalisation.
Whilst Portugal decriminalised drugs for users, it was not legal to sell drugs. Dealers and traffickers are still sent to jail, and dealing and trafficking remains a criminal offence. Drugs are still illegal in Portugal, but what it does is separate out addiction, so it can be managed through the health system, whilst handling the distribution of drugs through the judicial system.
In accepting that the war on drugs has not worked, and in accepting that drug use needs to be regarded as a health issue, I believe removing criminal sanctions for personal drug use and possession must be considered by all levels of government in future policy development. In fact, that was the approach adopted last week by the respected policy think tank Australia21. A round table of experts on drug policy highlighted how Australia's existing drug policy approach has failed to meet its own expectations and how poor drug policy leads to further crime.
All of this highlights that we do need serious drug law reform in Australia because, as our report highlights, the current approach in Australia is simply not working. If decriminalisation were to be seriously considered, then I think an approach, like the Portuguese approach, of appointing an expert panel to develop a strategy to improve health outcomes for Australian drug users would be an excellent example. When former law enforcement officers and former law enforcement agencies are saying that Australia cannot arrest its way out of the methamphetamine problem, then we must accept that a change in policy is necessary. In the words of Mick Palmer, the former AFP Commissioner:
'…Australians are fundamentally very decent and caring people. But to achieve the changes and improvements so desperately needed to our illicit drugs policy we must find ways to cause people to confront, identify and deal with the reality and to recognise the causes, not simply the symptoms. As part of this process we must be prepared to unashamedly tug at people's heart strings in order to change their minds.'
I hope that this report, which is the culmination of three years work, provides a way towards changing people's minds and achieving a better drug policy for this country. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.