NSW Drugs Policy
(Private Members Statement, 10 June 2021, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
Tonight I call on the Parliament to work together to reduce harm caused by the drug crystal methamphetamine—ice—and other amphetamine type stimulants.
New South Wales was once a leader in drugs policy. The 1999 Drug Summit led to innovative and evidence‑based responses to harm from heroin including the world's first medically supervised injecting centre, expanded needle and syringe, and methadone programs, and the increased availability of naloxone. Overdoses and blood-borne disease transmissions including HIV reduced dramatically. But New South Wales now has no formal drugs plan, despite high rates of amphetamine dependence and associated death. We rely on piecemeal and unsuccessful law and order responses, with our health systems, courts, social services sector and the wider community left to pick up the pieces.
The poor outcomes for people with a drug problem and their families are an embarrassment. Massive investment in law and order has had little effect on supply and demand; people continue to want to take illegal drugs and can easily get them. There are many reasons people take mood-enhancing substances, but only some go on to develop dependence or problematic use, often due to complex issues like trauma, childhood or partner abuse, unemployment, homelessness, entrenched social disadvantage, mental illness and loneliness. Their vulnerability makes prosecution even more damaging with lifelong impacts on employment, earning prospects, access to housing, relationships and wellbeing. While the threat of prosecution does not deter drug use, it stops people from getting help. People are less likely to open up about problematic use to their family, friends or health providers out of shame, stigma, fear of prosecution or having children removed.
The Special Commission of Inquiry into crystal methamphetamine and other amphetamine-type stimulants was ordered to look at ways to reduce harm. The inquiry was wide ranging and involved evidence from experts, affected individuals and communities, and assessment of international models. It produced over 100 sensible recommendations. The inquiry's key recommendation was to decriminalise drug use, in line with the recommendations of the coronial inquest into the death of six patrons of New South Wales music festivals. Decriminalisation is a proven harm-reduction strategy that replaces criminal convictions with cautions, fines and health intervention referrals. There would be no change to enforcement of drug dealing and trafficking crimes, and no increase in the availability of illicit drugs. New South Wales already has a number of decriminalisation policies in place including the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme, the Drug Criminal Infringement Notice Scheme and Amnesty Bins.
It is disappointing that the Government has already ruled out this vital reform, which will have far reaching benefits across the lives of drug users, their friends and their families, the criminal justice system and health. Shamefully the Government also rejected other key recommendations for additional medically supervised injecting centres, retiring drug dog detection operations and pill testing, despite the proven potential to save lives. It is now 16 months since the report was handed down and we await the Government's response to other recommendations that are not controversial and could have immediate benefits. The Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment diversionary program, the Drug Court and the Koori Youth Court should be expanded so all willing participants have access. We must urgently establish the Wallama Court, which was also a recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission.
Aboriginal people disproportionately experience harm from illicit drug use—amplified by colonisation impacts, racism and intergenerational trauma. Alcohol and other drug services need to be provided on country and we need to work with Aboriginal communities to develop culturally appropriate solutions. Homelessness is a risk factor for problematic drug use and without stable housing it is hard to engage in treatment or have complex needs addressed. A Housing First approach must be the policy for housing drug users, with support to retain tenancies and engage in rehabilitation. The prevalence of drug use for people in custody is high and this presents an opportunity to provide treatment and services. But the Government has also rejected the recommendation to pilot a prison needle and syringe program, despite hepatitis C rates among prisoners at 30 per cent compared to 1 per cent in the wider population.
If we are too scared to implement well-researched, evidence-based, government-commissioned recommendations to save lives then we should not be in this House. We are elected to make brave decisions that protect the vulnerable. If we do it together as a Parliament, taking a multipartisan approach, as done in 1999, we will be able to reduce the fallout from scaremongering elements of the media while saving lives. Drug use is a health and social issue that deserves a health and social response. We now have a range of recommendations based on evidence from a Special Commission of Inquiry. The time is now for this Parliament to work together to support a comprehensive drugs plan that is based on reducing harm.