Speech

Legislative Council

GOVERNMENT BILL: Drug offences

November 8th, 2018

On the 8th of November, Mark spoke to the Government's Statutes Amendment (Drug Offences) Bill 2018.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: For more than half a century governments have aggressively pursued a disastrous war-on-drugs policy that criminalises a health problem and that has only succeeded in making things worse. These policies are causing harm. They are killing our young, and it is time for a complete rethink. However, I am sad to say that the old parties do not have the courage to take on this issue.

The Greens have been leading in this area. We have a new, realistic and evidence-based approach to drug policy, one that reflects the reality of people's choices about using drugs in Australia. In particular, the Greens are on the record as supporting pill testing at music festivals, we support the removal of sniffer dogs, and we support regulating cannabis for adult use. The Greens' policy would revolutionise the way we handle these health problems in this country and would restore Australia's reputation as a leader in innovative drug policy.

It is not a policy that the Greens hold on their own, and I will refer to some of the other authorities that support our position. Some few months ago now Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale announced the party's plan to legalise cannabis for adult use. Dr Di Natale described the current approach to drugs in Australia as an unmitigated disaster. He said:

The war on drugs has failed. Governments around the world are realising that prohibition of cannabis causes more harm than it prevents. It's time Australia joined them and legalised cannabis for adult use. We need to get real about cannabis. Almost seven million Australians—

I understand the current process is that when a big number is mentioned the Leader of the Government, as a Greek chorus, chimes in and repeats the number, so I will do it myself as no-one else is doing it for me—

seven million Australians have tried… cannabis socially but right now just having a small amount of cannabis in your possession could get you a criminal record.

We know that cannabis accounts for most illicit drug arrests across Australia, and cannabis arrests and consumption are growing each year, so prohibition has failed. Using cannabis remains illegal, but this has not stopped Australians from using it.

Like a number of members here I have spoken on talkback radio, and this is an issue that often crops up. I remember, on talkback radio, talking to a grandparent and putting this question to them: 'Which third of your grandchildren are criminals?' The response was, 'None of them are criminals, they are all good kids.' Well, statistically one third of them are criminals, and that is a statistic that Australians need to pay close attention to. The number of people who have admitted to taking cannabis is seven million, but my feeling is that it is probably higher.

As people know, the leader of the Greens, Dr Di Natale, has been a drug and alcohol doctor. He says:

I've seen that the 'tough on drugs' approach causes enormous harm. It drives people away from getting help when they need it and exposes them to a dangerous black market.

The Greens have always seen drug use as a health issue, not a criminal issue. The plan we announced earlier this year was to create a legal market for cannabis production and sale that will reduce risks, bust the business model of criminal dealers and syndicates, and protect young people from unfair criminal prosecution. I think we have the bulk of Australians with us on that.

In a poll last year, 55 per cent of Australians said they believed cannabis should be taxed and regulated like alcohol or tobacco. I make the point, as I have a number of times in this place, that if we were serious about passing laws that were focused on where harm lies, alcohol and tobacco would have been outlawed years ago. Between them, they kill thousands upon thousands of people every year—alcohol and tobacco.

The difference is they have become socialised, we are used to them and they have been around for a very long time as opposed to drugs that are seen as newer and less socialised. We outlaw those, but certainly none of the existing policies are based on evidence. The President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Dr Alex Wodak, said:

Banning cannabis hasn’t reduced its use or availability yet it has distracted police from following up more serious crimes, harmed a lot of young people and helped make some criminals rich…

Regulating cannabis will give government more control and increase government revenue, which can be used to fund drug prevention and treatment.

There is an alternative approach to the provisions in this bill, but do not just take my word for it. Let us hear what some of the other stakeholders have said. I will start with the Law Society. Their submission from 14 June this year was based on the version of the bill that the Leader of the Opposition referred to before. It has since been watered down slightly, but the basic principles in their submission remain the same. The Law Society states:

Contemporary medical science recognises substance dependence and behavioural addiction as primarily health problems. The ability to divert a person out of the system and instead direct them to counselling is an important recognition that drug addiction is a medical issue rather than a criminal issue.

The Law Society goes on:

Substance dependence and behavioural addictions are recognised as chronic diseases of the brain’s reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Due to the nature of drug addiction, it is difficult for those who become dependent to overcome their addiction on their first attempt. Therefore, a person may require multiple diversions depending on the degree of their addiction, and other matters such as their environment and any relevant risk factors.

Another observation from the Law Society states:

The Society notes that this legislation is part of the Government’s 'winning the war on drugs' policy. The Society considers that the proposed Bill is at odds with this policy, and questions how restricting the opportunities for a person to receive treatment or counselling in relation to their drug dependency, will ultimately serve the greater objective of winning the war on drugs.

It goes on:

The Society considers that insufficient evidence-based justification has been provided for increasing penalties or limiting drug diversions. The Bill, in our view, fails to sufficiently recognise that drug addiction is a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

The Society is informed by its Criminal Law Committee that clients are often unable to access treatment programs due lack of availability of programs and that the cost of undertaking such programs can also be a prohibitive factor. This is further supported by the AMA who acknowledge that in most instances, demand for treatment outweighs availability, which can result in long wait times to access treatment.

The Society suggests a shift of focus from punitive measures, which will put an already over-capacity criminal justice system under further strain, to a focus on and investment in, treatment and rehabilitation. The Society considers in order to 'win the war on drugs', the medical and social issues that underpin drug addiction must be addressed.

That is under the hand of Tim Mellor, President of the Law Society of South Australia. One thing, also, that also struck me about the way we do legislation in this parliament is that, especially in the lead-up to and following an election, parties take populist positions, positions that they think will win them a few votes and then, having made the promise, even when they do form government and have access to a vast array of research and evidence, they say, 'Well, we sort of promised, so we'd better do it.'

I, for one, am more than happy for governments to be held to their promises when they make sensible promises. When they make stupid promises, I am more than happy for them to come clean and say, 'Look, we thought it was a good idea before the election. Now we are in government and we have access to all this expert evidence, we have now realised that it's not a good idea and we're not going to proceed with it', but that does not appear to be any part of political practice.

The other thing we do in this state and in this parliament is that we pass important social legislation without inquiring in any depth into what its implications might mean. I contrast that approach with the approach that is taken in other states. I note that recently in Victoria, they spent a year with a parliamentary committee looking at just these issues.

I had a quick look at the Victorian report. The first thing I found is that there was not a single Green on the committee; it was pretty well Liberal, Labor and other crossbenchers and did not involve the Greens. After a year of evidence, what did they recommend? Recommendation No. 13 was that the Victorian government should, and I quote:

…treat the offences of personal use and possession of all illicit substances as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

That is what you come up with when you talk to the experts and you have a proper look at it. What do we do here? Table a bill. A few people, like me, stand up and read a few stakeholder statements and then it is voted on. It is a very poor way to pass legislation. We really do owe the people of South Australia much better service than we provide them with.

The Greens are not at all happy that this bill is going to go through, it seems, and probably without amendment. I filed and put on the record three clauses that are, if you like, indicative of the main problems with this bill. The amendment simply says that these clauses will be opposed. The three of them relate to the simple offences of possession and growing cannabis plants, for which the penalties are being increased, and also this ridiculous notion that a person has worn out the patience of the state by seeking more than two diversions in four years. That is just a ridiculous proposition.

My challenge to honourable members, especially those who may have smoked tobacco or cigarettes: how many of you gave up on your first attempt? How many of you gave up on your second attempt? We understand from the physiology of addiction that very few people manage to break addictive behaviours at the first, second, third and sometimes even fourth or fifth attempt.

The idea of saying to people that they only get two tries at breaking their addiction and after that go straight into the criminal justice system with no more leniency or latitude is just an appalling way to treat people who, in many instances, are desperately keen to improve their health and to get into behaviours that are better for them than a life of addiction. We know that it can be dangerous and can take hold of people's lives, and we certainly do not want to wish that on anyone.

The Greens have put forward those three clauses as a test, if you like, of whether there is anything at all worth supporting in this bill. There are some other provisions in there that we do not find as offensive, but certainly, at the heart, the bill is flawed in its philosophy. We would urge this council to save the government from itself. They may have promised this in their first 100 days, but I think it is the responsibility of this council to help them through the dilemma they have got themselves in and to oppose at least the most egregious parts of this bill.

printer friendly version

Get email updates