24 Jul Why we need drug law reform
Last month, on a wet and wintery Tuesday night, more than 700 people came together at St Stephen’s Uniting Church in Sydney’s CBD. Amongst them were media, politicians and members of Uniting Church congregations. A further 5,000 people tuned in to watch online.
They came to hear from Portuguese drug policy expert, Dr Manuel Cardoso at an event that marked the ‘soft launch’ of our Uniting campaign to reform drug laws across NSW and the ACT. The campaign calls for Australian governments to decriminalise drug use and advocates for greater investment into treatment instead.
17 years ago, Portugal removed criminal sanctions for people found in possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. They began a concerted policy of viewing drug dependency as a health and social issue, rather than a criminal one.
Dr Cardoso was instrumental in the reform and the results have been dramatic. Most notably, hundreds of lives have been saved. The number of drug-related overdose deaths has significantly decreased, directly reducing the burden on the criminal justice system and the related social costs.
Many thought decriminalisation would lead to an increase in drug use, but in fact drug-related harm has gone down, as has use of nearly all illicit drugs.
Dr Cardoso was joined onstage by Medical Director of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre Dr Marianne Jauncey, former Western Australia Premier Prof Geoff Gallop, and Executive Director of advocacy charity Unharm Will Tregoning.
“A lot of it is just about being able to change the narrative,” said Dr Marianne Jauncey. “[We need to] change the way we talk about people who use drugs and go to the heart of this… which is about the citizens of our country – our fellow human beings.”
The campaign aligns with World Health Organisation advice that states, “Countries should work towards developing policies and laws that decriminalise use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.”
Dominic Streeter, Head of Advocacy Campaigns at Uniting said, “Great drug policy saves lives. Criminalising people who are ill does nothing more than fill jails, ruin lives and waste money.
“By prioritising treatment over punishment, Portugal has reduced death rates, drug-related harms and the tax payer-funded burden on the criminal justice system; proving that everybody wins from an approach that is evidence-based and compassionate.
“We have identified crucial gaps in treatment in NSW and ACT and, through this campaign, we will be lobbying for greater funding to help fill those gaps and improve the lives of the people we serve.”
Watch a video recap of the event below.