Decriminalisation- a good idea?

In April, I did a radio story on the topic on the topic of decriminalisation, which you can listen to here.  I wrote this story using the notes and transcripts from interviews.

‘If you had a camera…’ she murmured, rolling up her sleeves and pushing up a multitude of chunky bracelets. ‘These are the scars from shooting up heroin and cocaine for five or six years in Kings Cross…it burns your veins and they all collapse.’ They didn’t look like scars so much as massive dents running all down her arms, blotches of purple visible through pearly white skin.
Heading over to the Wayside Chapel had been a bit of a last resort for me, after a tour of the injecting room and a brief stop at St Vincent’s Hospital had given me very little to go off for my story on drugs. Not to mention the empty pill bottles and syringes on the side of the road leading there and the homeless people smoking and drinking out the front made me a little apprehensive. But the guy I talked to who worked there was really nice, and offered to introduce me to some of the people out the front.
Most were, understandably a bit scared off by the huge microphone and the mention of drugs, but Kate* was surprisingly cool with it.
Rewind two weeks- On April 3, a think tank called Australia 21 released a report essentially declaring that Australia’s ‘war’ on drugs was ‘a failure’ and proposed decriminalisation as the best solution. The report was written by 24 Australian politicians (including Foreign Minister Bob Carr) ,doctors ,police officers and academics as a response to a Global Commission report in 2011 outlining reasons why prohibition wasn’t working- it wasn’t stopping drug use so much as driving it underground and therefore making it harder to regulate but still pretty easy to obtain. Not to mention the amount of resources it takes up in justice systems, resources that could be better spent going after people who are actually a danger to society, not some kid who took ecstasy once.
While frantically trawling the internet and newspapers for story leads, this one caught my eye simply because it’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense once you get past the initial moral panic factor.
In my interview with Dr. Caitlin Hughes, a researcher at NDARC (National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre), she said that there is a huge difference between decriminalisation and legalisation and that’s probably where a lot of the confusion is happening.
‘It’s important to note that decriminalisation is different to legalisation…legalisation is where you would be changing responses in regards to traffickers as well, but it would be going that next step and not just removing criminal penalties but [making it legal to produce drugs within Australia as well as import them]…Decriminalisation is much more of a middle ground, it’s more a pragmatic way of trying to improve the responses to drug users.’
We also talked a bit about other countries introducing similar policies, the most recent being Portugal in 2001- since then, the research has shown that it’s actually been extremely beneficial, in that it allows the justice systems to devote more resources to traffickers than needlessly criminalising young people who take drugs once or twice, and there has been an overall decrease in overdoses.
‘Going down the route of decriminalisation, particularly if it was going to be for all illicit drugs in Australia it would be a big step and it would be a bit of a risk,’ said Dr Hughes. ‘But at the same time… sometimes you have to take risk and then monitor what happens so I think that would be the situation here, you’d never entirely be able to predict what would happen but getting the best people in the room means you can make more calculated decisions and hopefully get the best sort of policy responses.’
So back to Kate* at the Wayside Chapel. One thing that stood out was her eyes- she was wearing trackies and blended in with everyone else out there, but her eyes were meticulously made up with blue eyeliner and eyeshadow. I wish I’d asked her about it now but it was a weird thing to work into a conversation about drugs.
‘I’ve worked in strip clubs up here and I’ve had…a girl think she was getting snipered by a gun and she had a red spot on her head and I’d say “sit behind me and there’s a wall behind you so the only way they’re going to get you is if they shoot me first.”‘
‘Legalising drugs and doing it in an injection clinic is a lot safer than people just using it in the street because they don’t get taught anything about the drug …me and my boyfriend, he thought he bought cocaine on William St…about 5 minutes later I was sitting in this guy’s car because I was a working girl, the guy was dropping my boyfriend off to drive me and him to a motel, and halfway there I said ‘Daniel* , I feel really dizzy and I feel like I’m gonna faint…’ and they rushed me straight into emergency.’
What she said about her experience at St Vincent’s surprised me a little- ‘St Vincent’s Hospital, they’re hopeless, they discriminate against drugs…they said to me ‘get out of the car and walk’ and I tried to get out of the car and fell flat on my face.’
She went on to tell a very rambly story about how they gave her stuff that clashed with the medication she was on, made her boyfriend sleep on the floor and just didn’t show a huge amount of concern.
I guess I don’t know the whole story, but you’d think a hospital in the middle of the Cross would be a little more accepting of drug users as part of their clientele? Sure, there’s the argument that they do it to themselves as opposed to people who come in genuinely sick, but when you think about it, can you imagine anyone having that attitude towards any other self-inflicted ailments, e.g. someone getting pneumonia from being in the rain? Judgement shouldn’t really come into it if you’re in a position like that.
As far as interviews go, it was right up there with the guy who believed in mermaids in terms of perspective-altering interviews that will probably still be anecdotes in ten years time. She was probably the best interviewee I had for that story, and it amazed me not only how nice she was, but how she was willing to be so honest to some random chick with a microphone.
‘It’s hard to say what should be legalised and what shouldn’t be,’ she said. ‘But number one I reckon should be legalised is marijuana. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s a plant .So’s opium… but it does kill people and if there were safer injecting clinics like there are here, yeah, it’s a different story.’
It’s been two weeks since that report was released, and the media sort of dropped the story after it became clear that Julia Gillard wasn’t going to change her mind about it anytime soon. And, well, even if she did she probably wouldn’t do anything about it because that would be way too progressive *rolls eyes*. But the point wasn’t to change politicians’ minds so much as to open up a discussion in the community and maybe encourage people to speak up and make it clear that there are Australians who would support it and that it really isn’t that radical an idea, when you consider how many other countries have done it and it’s been really successful. I don’t expect much to come of this article but it would definitely be cool if it started up some more discussion.

*name changed at request

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