A New approach to illicit drugs policy

I’m pleased to be speaking at a gathering of the Parliamentarians for Drug Law Reform. This is a non-partisan cause of which I am very happy to associate myself.


It is great to see so many practitioners, frontline workers, researchers and members of the judicial community come to Canberra to engage on illicit drug law reform.

You are all too numerous to mention, but I join in thanking each one of you for coming. Particularly Beau Kilmer of the RAND Corporation who has come all the way from the United States and New Zealand’s Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne MP who has come from across the ditch. You are all most welcome in our nation’s capital.

I would like to acknowledge the Minister for Rural Health Minister Senator Fiona Nash, Greens leader Richard Di Natale, the Member for Murray Sharman Stone and the Member for Fremantle Melissa Parke.

Australian governments spend in excess of $1.7 billion annually combating illicit drugs. This includes police detection and arrests for drug crimes, policing the borders of Australia for importation, prevention programs, treatment services and harm reduction strategies.

From the total pot of $1.7 billion almost 65 per cent is spent on supply reduction via law enforcement.

But just 22 per cent is spent on treatment, 9.5 per cent on prevention and 2.2 per cent on harm reduction.

The questions that we have to ask ourselves – have we got our priorities right? Is this the most efficient way?

Before coming to Parliament I worked as a community worker and lawyer and I gained numerous insights from this experience.

It was as clear then as it is now that what we are doing is not working. We need to build our policies on the best available evidence base and research from around the globe tells us this - treatment provides the best return on government investment.

We need to adopt a health-based approach rather than relying on measures which may fill our gaols but do little to stem the supply of drugs or the harm caused. Resources should be directed to most effective strategies.

Recently I visited the Solaris therapeutic community program, a voluntary treatment initiative for adult males in the Alexander Maconochie Corrections Centre just outside of Canberra.

I asked some of the men inside how old they were when their problems started. The majority said 11 or 12, some hadn’t reached double digits.

As I’ve visited treatment centres around Australia, practitioners have repeatedly said that 90 per cent of the people they are treating are dealing with some underlying trauma: such as child abuse, family violence or workplace injury.

We are compelled to ask – is criminal law the best way to deal with this? Our prisons, themselves a site of illicit drug use, have become the “service provider” of last resort.

Around 12 per cent of male prisoners and 17 per cent of female prisoners are there for drug offences such as possession or trafficking. A much larger number of prisoners indicate that illegal drug use contributed to their offence.

It’s also an expensive option. It costs $300 a day to keep someone in gaol; money that could be spent on addressing the underlying causes behind addiction and resulting crime. In any case our prisons are hardly in a position to take on a greater load.

The RAND Policy Research Centre which tells us that treatment is estimated to be 10 to 15 times more cost-effective than enforcement interventions at reducing serious drug-related crime.

The evidence is in, the question is whether we choose to ignore it or not.

These are questions of government spending influenced by, but separate from, questions of law reform and law enforcement directives. Criminal sanction is the most forceful way that a society expresses its disapproval about a given action.

It can also be one of the least effective.

It wasn’t so long ago that Australia led the world on a new approach to illicit drug use.

We did so by introducing innovative harm reduction strategies to stop the spread of HIV-AIDS, Hepatitis C infections and heroin overdoses and we are still reaping the rewards now.

Needle and syringe programs – designed to reduce the health risks associated with sharing needles – have saved lives and saved us money.

There are now around 3,500 NSPs in Australia distributing over 30 million needles and syringes a year.

Between 1988 and 2000 around 25,000 HIV infections were estimated to have been prevented among injecting drug users.

In the decade after that these programs had prevented about 32,000 cases of HIV and over 96,000 cases of Hepatitis C.

As a result it has been projected that 4,500 deaths from HIV were averted by 2010. It wasn’t only lives that were saved. For every dollar invested in NSPs Australia saved $4 in health care costs and $27 in overall costs to the community.

There is much more we can do.

Following a 1999 summit that examined a so-called heroin “epidemic” in Australia then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr introduced the Kings Cross medically supervised injecting centre.

He thought there was a better way to deal with the problem law makers faced and he was right.

Last year I visited the centre. It wasn’t always popular; in fact when it first opened in 2000 as a “trial” there was public outcry.

But the results are in and the benefits to the community have been significant. Ambulance call-outs to Kings Cross have fallen by 80 per cent. The number of publicly discarded needles and syringes in the area has halved. MSIC has one of the highest rates of successful referral of any supervised injecting centre in the entire world.

It’s just so easy to see how much more efficiently we could be spending tax dollars.

One advisory firm found that King’s Cross’s MISC saves the health system at least $658,000 per annum.

New frontiers for harm reduction require us to apply the same principles.

Right now we can’t say that we are doing everything possible to save lives affected by substance misuse. There is so much more we can do, we just have to muster the will to make it happen.