17 September 2013
(Second Reading Debate, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The Drugs and Poisons Legislation Amendment (New Psychoactive and Other Substances) Bill 2013 bans all synthetic psychoactive substances in New South Wales, creating offences for possession, supply, manufacture and advertising.
The definition used is broad, encompassing pretty much anything that affects the central nervous system except food, such as chocolate; tea; coffee; alcohol and nicotine. The bill responds to the tragic death earlier this year of a 17-year-old who jumped from a balcony after taking synthetic lysergic acid diethylamide [LSD], which made him think he could fly. I understand why the Government has chosen to legislate—the sad pleas from the teenager's parents calling for action to prevent a similar incident are heartbreaking—but this bill will do nothing to reduce the damage caused by drugs.
Prohibition costs lives. It leads to overdoses, spreads disease, creates income for criminals, encourages theft and corruption, and results in otherwise law-abiding citizens entering the criminal justice system. I am certainly not the first to ask: What have we gained from the war on drugs? Dr Alex Wodak of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation points out that people have wanted to take mood-altering drugs for thousands of years throughout human history, and widening bans and offences and criminalising more types of drugs has never stopped this desire. Where there is a demand, supply will follow. The bill before the House will not prevent most people who seek psychoactive drugs from accessing them. Can we be sure that the replacement drug that people seek will be less dangerous than those this bill seeks to prohibit? Of course we cannot.
Prohibition makes the creation of synthetic drugs unregulated and dangerously moves their manufacture and sale to the black market. Drugs are a market, and prohibition makes them a lucrative market. It sends profits to real criminals, who inflate prices and potentially create more harmful products. I understand that when Asia banned the smoking of opium it was replaced by heroin injecting, which made a slightly bad situation much worse. The Commonwealth-funded Illicit Drug Reporting System asks drug users how easy it is for them to access certain drugs. In 2012 "easy/very easy" was reported by 87 per cent of heroin users and 65 per cent of cocaine users. The figures were 89 per cent for methamphetamine, 91 per cent for hydroponic cannabis and 82 per cent for bush cannabis.
Sending a message is bad drugs policy. Drugs policy should focus on harm minimisation, with the aim to reduce death, disease, crime and corruption. Policies should be based on evidence. The Government has provided no evidence that the approach in this bill will work. There has been an interim ban on synthetic drugs since June and the Government says that since then Newcastle police report a drop in synthetic drug related severe behavioural disturbances from 26 incidents per month to two, and a drop in emergency department presentations linked to synthetic drugs from 75 per month to 39. But this is hardly scientific evidence of the long-term effects of a ban, particularly given the clear impacts of prohibition.
We must look at ways to get people to consume less dangerous drugs in lower amounts and in less dangerous ways. New Zealand is moving to regulate part of the market in an attempt to have a safer, regulated drugs market form a greater proportion of the total drugs market. The Government should observe and assess the outcomes in New Zealand in terms of death, disease and crime, and consider regulating the market in New South Wales together with other States and Territories and the Commonwealth. Governments should start being proactive and look at proven ways to prevent harm from drugs. I am concerned that further prohibition is not the answer.