Decriminalise drug call

Charles Henderson believes putting drug users as the focus is key to ecriminalisation. Photo by George Marrable
With overdoses on the increase, experts say Australia should follow the lead of some European countries by decriminalising and regulating illegal drugs. George Marrable reports.

A leading Melbourne organisation that works with recovering drug users has thrown support behind the decriminalisation of drugs in Australia.

This comes after a report, led by ex-Victoria Premier Jeff Kennett and senior police officers, recommended reducing and eliminating penalties for possession and use of illicit drugs.

Charles Henderson, acting executive officer of Harm Reduction Victoria (HRV), says decriminalisation is an important step and shouldn’t be feared.

“I think it’s something that we should really embrace and get onto quite quickly,” he said.

“It will reduce the adverse health effects quite dramatically, because it will allow people to be more open about their drug use.”

Following the report, Greens MP Colleen Hartland posed the question of drug law reform to Minister of Families and Children Jenny Mikakos in the Victorian state parliament.

Ms Mikakos told parliament how the government had invested in “key harm minimisation” activities in the state.

Recommendations from the report included eliminating penalties, safe injection centres and creating a ‘white-market’ for the sale of drugs.

Mr Henderson said: “The idea around decriminalisation is to reduce the illegal and black markets effects of illegal drugs.

“The white market would be a much easier way to get a regulated, safe drug market to the people who want to use them.”

Professor Edward Ogden, specialist in addiction medicine at St Vincent’s hospital, also showed his support for controlled decriminalisation.

Decriminalise drug call
Society needs to look at issues why people take drugs, according to Edward Ogden. Photo George Marrable

Victorian laws currently state that possession or use of any illicit drugs can lead to prosecution.

However, first time offences for possession of small amounts of cannabis can result in just a warning.

Professor Ogden said: “We could sort things into three groups. We’ve got things that are completely safe, where government could probably just leave them alone.

“You’ve got things we get concerned about, which is why some drugs are on prescription.

“And then we’ve got stuff that is just really scary, because of its harm to individuals and potential harm to the community.”

However, both Ogden and Henderson called for an increased focus on helping users, and understanding reasons why people use illegal drugs.

Harm Reduction Victoria, Mr Henderson’s organisation, works with users to offer support and represent their views in society.

Mr Henderson said: “I think that if we don’t keep drug users at the centre of this discussion, we’ll lose our focus and lose our way very quickly.

“For the conversation to remain grounded and remain real and to get real results, it’s time to put the drugs user at the centre of that.”

This sentiment of support for drug users was echoed by Professor Ogden.

A 2015 report on the harm of drugs and alcohol in Europe showed that alcohol was significantly more harmful than drugs such as LSD, cannabis and ecstasy.

Professor Ogden said: “We should stop demonising the stuff and stop demonising the users. If this drug is the temporary solution for something, what is the problem?

“We’d do much better to look at why people use [drugs], and is there a safer way to either have a positive experience.

Mr Henderson also criticised the government for their current policy on drugs, including the current funding available for organisations such as HRV.

“We get 2 per cent of the total spend. 2 per cent is just an inadequate amount to be spent on harm reduction. We struggle every year just to get our jobs done.

“I’m unsure as to why politicians continue to take a tough approach when the overwhelming evidence suggests that the tough war on drugs is not the right way to go.”