VIDEO: Let’s follow Portugal on drugs — Stonehouse

Picture: Atlas House

I rise to indicate my support for the motion. I thank Hon Alison Xamon for bringing on this motion to establish a Select Committee into alternative approaches to reducing illicit drug use and its effects on the community. I am also excited to see that I will be a member of that committee, and I look forward to working with the other honourable members on it, including Hon Alison Xamon.

Video: Parliament of Western Australia

I wholeheartedly support it. In fact, last year I brought on my own motion in this house to recognise the benefits of legalising recreational cannabis. Although I certainly did not get much support for that motion, an interesting part of that debate arose when I was speaking at one point about Portugal and its approach to decriminalising drugs, and the Minister for Regional Development interjected to suggest that perhaps we should take a trip to Portugal to look at how things are working out for them there. I think her suggestion was perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek, but it is great to see that there is now broad support from all parties across the chamber for this select committee and that it will be looking specifically at Portugal’s approach to the decriminalisation of drugs as a tool in drug harm reduction.

The Liberal Democrats have long had a policy for legalising any substance that is less harmful than alcohol and for decriminalising all other substances. By “decriminalising” it meant that it still remains illegal but personal consumption would no longer be treated as a criminal matter and that those who are caught with small amounts of drugs for personal consumption would be directed to health services as opposed to the justice system, which is essentially Portugal’s model, which I will get into more detail later.

The approach of legalising anything less harmful than cannabis might sound rather controversial, but the logic is that if as a society we accept that alcohol is an okay substance, a substance that can be used in social settings, then it is only logical that any substance less harmful than alcohol should be treated the same way or with even less regulation. That may include things such as cannabis and other substances; MDMA could perhaps fall within that depending upon what metric for harm is used.

Moving on from that, it is my view that our current policy towards drugs, this so-called war on drugs, has been a failure. It has been a failure due somewhat to its unintended consequences. A war on drugs, a prohibitionist approach, fuels organised crime. It has created a black market for illicit substances, just like the temperance movement did with alcohol. Because the trade in drugs can only exist outside the law, those who do business outside the law control the trade. When operating in a black market, no legal recourse is available for those who are ripped off or who are owed money. More often than not, debts are enforced through violence.

The more the government tries to the interdict the drug trade, the greater the risk for traffickers. As a result of risk increases, prices will often go up. However, for addicts the demand for drugs is inelastic, which means that as prices go up, demand does not necessarily drop off at the same rate and addicts can become more and more desperate as prices increase. We know that many of the burglaries and thefts committed in our community are by those who are desperate for money to feed their addictions.

We also have a system in which non-violent offenders are incarcerated. In WA it costs the taxpayer about $432 a day to keep someone in jail and the recidivism rate is around 40 per cent. We also have, which I have spoken about many times in this house, a regime of property confiscation that is targeted towards supposed drug traffickers. The problem with that, though, is the definition of “trafficker” is rather arbitrary. Merely having over a certain quantity of drugs determines that a person is a trafficker whether they are engaged in trafficking or in dealing or selling those drugs.

Possession of 3 kilograms or 20 plants of cannabis, or 28 grams of meth, will get a person declared a drug trafficker and the state can confiscate all and any property they own, whether or not that property was obtained legitimately. Under the current regime the courts also have no discretion in property confiscation. Someone with 20 plants that may be little more than seedlings will still be declared a drug trafficker regardless of whether any criminal activity was involved in the growing or cultivation of those plants.

For the last year and a half I have been lobbying the Attorney General on these issues, on the war on drugs and on our property confiscation regime. I have been raising awareness where I can about confiscation and ensuring that these issues are kept in the public sphere and in the media. I have met with many people affected by our draconian confiscation regime.

As I mentioned, I introduced a motion on this matter last year, I have spoken about it in Parliament on at least a few occasions, and just a few months ago I introduced a private member’s bill that was aimed at amending the Misuse of Drugs Act and returning discretion to the bench by allowing judges to refuse to make a drug trafficker declaration if making such a declaration would be clearly unjust.

I was excited to see that in recent weeks the Attorney General announced a desktop review into property confiscation, specifically into the Criminal Property Confiscation Act, which will be chaired by Chief Justice Wayne Martin. I am delighted by this news. It is long overdue. I can think of no-one better qualified than Chief Justice Wayne Martin to conduct this review. I look forward to its report, which should be available by 1 February 2019.

Moving back to the matter of illicit drug use, I will muse a little. It seems to me that those who advocate prohibition seem motivated by a somewhat paternalistic instinct. Often if they see their neighbour indulging in a form of recreation that they disapprove of, they feel obliged to impose their own will upon him for his own good. This paternalistic attitude demands more government action and harsher penalties.

In my view, that kind of kneejerk response should be resisted. We all have a natural right to life, liberty and property, but most importantly we are endowed with free will. The government does not own us and society does not own us. Earlier, during Hon Alanna Clohesy’s contribution, the idea was brought up that a cost of drug use is the loss of economic productivity.

That is certainly true; it is a cost of drug use, but I am not sure that is something the government should be concerned about. It implies almost that government or society is owed our productivity. It is not. We can be as productive or unproductive as we like in our life; it is our choice. The economic decisions we make should not really be the concern of the government, in my view. I digress.

As members of a society we should absolutely advocate for a clean, sober lifestyle through volunteering, outreach or ministering. Leveraging the coercive power of the state against our neighbour for their own good would be not only immoral but also wholly counterproductive.

The unintended consequences of prohibition are far more harmful in most cases than the drugs themselves. Recently, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Society for Public Health, the Faculty of Public Health, the Australian Medical Association, former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police Mick Palmer are among a long list of experts and public figures who have called for the decriminalisation of drugs in one form or another.

As I mentioned before, decriminalisation means that although drugs remain illegal, personal consumption of them is no longer treated as a criminal offence. These health bodies and others recognise that decriminalisation removes much of the stigma around accessing health services. When addicts do not fear criminal charges, they can access the professional help they need. Overdose rates decline, HIV rates decline and, importantly, valuable police, prison and court resources can be directed towards tackling far more serious and violent crimes.

The best known example of drug decriminalisation is, of course, Portugal. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Portugal was facing a heroin epidemic. At one point in the 1990s, about one per cent of Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin. HIV-related deaths and overdoses were amongst the highest in Europe.

In 2001, Portugal passed legislation to decriminalise all drugs — cannabis, amphetamines, heroin, everything. Seventeen years later, Portugal has the second lowest overdose rate in Europe. The number of cases of HIV have declined. Despite the decriminalisation of drugs, drug-use rates have not increased. In fact, amongst 15 to 24-year-olds, drug use has drastically declined and is lower than the European average.

This is all despite the fact that Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Portugal still struggles with drug abuse; it has not been a silver bullet, but by changing its focus from law enforcement to health, it has markedly reduced drug-related harm.

This proposed select committee into alternate approaches to reducing illicit drug use and its effects on the community will give us an opportunity review our prohibitionist approach to drugs.

It is my hope that we take a step towards a more compassionate and evidence-based drug policy, one that reduces drug-related harm and recognises that addiction is first and foremost a health issue, that upholds our principles of natural justice and that respects the autonomy and freedom of the individual. On that, I indicate that I support this motion and I encourage other members to support it too.