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Beyond Prohibition

Report of the Redfern Legal Centre Drug Law Reform Project

September 1996

3. Comments on Steps to Harm Reduction

A version of the Steps towards Harm Reduction section of this report was provided to people and organisations with expertise or interest in the area of drugs policy and drugs law, together with a questionnaire (see Appendix 2) seeking comments on the paper.

Responses were sought from 55 individuals and organisations (see Appendix 1). Written responses were received from 21 respondents and eight responses were obtained by interview (29 responses in all). Given the low response rate and the ways that respondents were selected, this survey is not designed to provide research evidence about support for or against changes to drug laws. However, the responses allow us to see where support appears to be forming and what areas continue to be the subject of intense debate.

Responses were received from the following individuals and organisations. Organisations are listed when they provided an organisational response: otherwise the individuals listed spoke only in a personal capacity and not on behalf of any Organisation:

Uniting Church Board for Social Responsibility Anglican Church

Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney

AIDS Council of NSW

Hepatitis C Council of NSW

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations Australian IV League

NSW Bar Council

Australian Medical Association

UN Association of Australia (NSW) Drug Abuse Control Committee

HEMP Nimbin

Dr Lisa Maher

Meriel Schultz

Garth Popple

James Pitts

Lory Price

Greg Chilvers

Don Weatherburn

David McDonald

Dr Alex Wodak

Bill Stronach

Professor Peter Baume

Dr Robert Marks

John Howard (lecturer, not PM)

Dr Wendy Lox1ey

Major Brian Watters

Ken Marslew

Angela and Tony Wood Dr Peter B Paisley

(Total responses do not always add up to 29 because some respondents did not answer all questions and some gave overall support or opposition, rather than provide details on specific points.)

Do you support some change in the legal current approach to personal use and possession?

All respondents agreed that some change was necessary. The overwhelming majority favoured change in the direction of some liberalisation of existing legal approaches. One respondent supported change in the form of higher penalties for use and possession offences. One supported additional intervention (eg, education) as well as police intervention.


"There is (and has been for decades) overwhelming evidence that the current system not only does not work but is cataclysmically harmful."

"[Supported] for cannabis use/possession only. Population use of cannabis has reached the point where prohibition does more harm than good."

"Counterproductive and contrary to principles of harm minimisation and National Drugs Strategy to criminalise users."

"Should be less criminal records for these offences, shorter time for expungement of criminal records."

It is important to note that almost all respondents support some change, as one of the findings of this process is that views are polarised on the points contained in the Steps Towards Harm Reduction. While most respondents supported the need for changes in all of the areas covered by the document, several respondents opposed most such changes. Those generally in favour of change included some church groups, doctors, lecturers, researchers, drug educators, drug treatment staff and community based organisations. Those generally opposed included some church groups, doctors association, drug treatment staff and some community members.

Several respondents chose to write letters in support of their general position. These general comments included:

"Issues of dependency could be more easily addressed and the transmission of blood borne viruses could be more efficiently reduced by taking the Steps Towards Harm Reduction."

"Too much attention is focused on the question of whether the present system of drug prohibition is working. In my view, the answer is clearly that prohibition is not working ... But accepting that prohibition has failed is not enough. Whether we should get rid of it depends on what we can come up with as a replacement. Criminal law is not the only means of regulation nor is its central presence in drug control strategy inevitable ... The real choice is about what type of state control is to replace prohibition as the dominant strategy." (original emphasis)

"The case here tends to be overstated by extrapolations and generalisations ... There cannot be a blanket approach to encouraging safe and responsible drug use ... There is no clear evidence that either more restrictive or more liberal policies have achieved significant impact on the prevalence of illicit drugs."

"The (United Nations) conventions do reflect consensus and, with the problem of substance misuse, there has to be a line drawn somewhere. I believe that drug law reform, at its worst, acts to destroy all the lines and to leave only confusion to those who desperately seek direction."

Option a. Abolish the offences of use and possession

Eighteen respondents supported this change, six were opposed, three were unsure.


"It's a victimless crime. What you do to yourself in the privacy of your own home is no-one's business."

"[The current law is] counterproductive socially and economically."

"It would equal approval - a message that drug use is OK."

"There needs to be community consultations before progress can occur."

Option b. Abolish the offence of self administration only

The proposal to abolish the offence of self administration only was not included in the questionnaire completed by respondents. However, one response noted that the most recent Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy meeting had resolved to form a Working Party of the National Drug Strategy Committee to examine the self administration laws in every jurisdiction. This Working Party is chaired by Mr Neil Bridge of the NSW Police Service.

Option c. Vary enforcement practices (i) Better directed police discretion

The version of the paper circulated for comment did not include this section, so most respondents did not have the opportunity to comment on the proposals. The proposals were discussed with a small number of respondents, who indicated some support.

(ii) Formal Police cautions

Twenty respondents favoured this proposal, three were opposed.

Among the supporters, two indicated broad support for the concept, but disagreement with the details proposed. Two supporters expressed the view that this proposal was a poor alternative to the repeal of the offences. Another advocated this approach before considering legislative amendment at a later time.


"Police contact, if it is a deterrent, would be just as effective with a caution or bond as with a harsher penalty."

"Diversion of users away from criminal charges should be used wherever possible. Unfortunately [the Department of] Health does not resource sufficient treatment or counselling services. Magistrates cannot refer if there are no services. Neither can police."

"Less intrusive and punitive. Gives some option for the individual"

"It should remain a court matter, but with no convictions recorded."

(iii) On-the-spot fines

Seven respondents were in favour of this proposal, with another one "half in favour" and 15 opposed.

The respondent who was partially in favour suggested that the South Australian experience was not a fair test of the effectiveness of this approach because the law there does not allow the police to demand identification. This respondent suggested a variation on the proposal, with no fines or other police attention for amount of less than 25 grams (for cannabis), and fines for quantities in the range of 25 grams to, say, 100 grams.


"Although I favour legalisation, on the spot fines may be a half way house"

"Fines are overused as a sanction."

"They would just fill up the fines yards and periodic detention centres." "It is too difficult, apparently, to prevent net-widening."

V) Other suggestions

Respondents were invited to make other suggestions for legal change concerning personal use and possession.

Six respondents offered comments.


"Policing priorities (I guess goes with (b)) Licensing of IV users (?), pot smokers(?)"

"Some process for referral for assessment for treatment/ rehabilitation. Need to look at withdrawing driving licences, eg for methadone patients."

"Let people grow what they like. Let the market place sort it out. Supply good quality seed - kill the black market. Keep it cheap. Get away from needles."

"Referral options - jobs - safe housing."

"Legalise heroin and cannabis."

"Continue education and encouragement of non-use, and not starting to use: eg, experiment."

Remove prison as a sentencing option for drug use or possession

Twenty respondents were in favour of this proposal, and four were opposed.

Two of those in favour of this change supported the establishment of secure, custodial rehabilitation facilities for some drug users as an alternative to prison.


"What's the point of putting users in gaol?"

"[Yes] But it should be seldom if ever used."

"Minimise or modify prison sentence, deviation/direction to rehabilitation or treatment agencies when possible."

3 Allow use of cannabis for medical purposes

Eighteen respondents were in favour of this proposal, three were opposed. One of those in favour supported cannabis for medical purposes on prescription only.


"Even if it is only a third rate drug - why not allow some people to benefit?"

"Cannabis in smokable form is not the best available treatment for patients suffering from any illness."

"For some conditions (eg, AIDS related weight loss), there is no good alternative."

4. Allow possession of drug equipment as well as needles and syringes

Nineteen respondents favoured the proposal (including one who supported legal change for bongs, but was uncertain about injecting equipment), four were opposed. One of those opposed to this proposal thought that a new offence should be introduced for irresponsible disposal of used needles and syringes.


"Don't want to encourage drug use."

"It's a proven public health success."

"Present situation is patently ludicrous."

5 Provide safe injecting spaces

Eighteen respondents were in favour of this proposal, five were opposed.


"Definitely. Works towards increased safe disposal (by centralising use), decrease in overdoses (monitored use), takes away IV use from public facilities like public toilets, provision of counselling, health monitoring. High priority change."

"Safe for whom? These could assist in collection of used needles which a good thing. If illegal supplies of drugs which are being trafficked, these may prove unsafe for users."

"Socially unworkable. The practicalities of their location and operation are enormous."

"Cannot assume beneficial public health effect especially if current prohibitions remain in place. Also have to ensure that such places are truly 'safe' and clients are free from identification and police harassment."

"What about non-metro towns? They may need them more."

6 Allow use, possession and supply of Narcan without prescription

Eleven respondents were in favour of this proposal, four were against. Most others were unsure.


"This is well supported in research. There are practical difficulties with its availability. Needs to be worked on rather than talked about!"

"I don't want to see kids die."

"100% for it."

"I'm not sure about this, but I suppose I should logically support it."

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