What Will It Take For Australian Governments To Get Serious About Decriminalising Drugs?

'Just say no' doesn't work. Worse, it kills people.

In a sadly familiar story, two people died and dozens of others were hospitalised last week after overdosing at Stereosonic music festival. Sylvia Choi, a 25 year old pharmacist who attended the festival in NSW, and high school student Stefan Woodward, 19, who attended in South Australia, both died as a result of complications that arose from taking drugs.

Once again Australia finds itself in a debate on how these tragic incidents could have been prevented, and the responses from our political leaders have thus far been pretty woeful. Emergency doctors, Harm Reduction Australia, and even former NSW Premier Bob Carr have all weighed in by supporting the idea of drug testing at music festivals, but police and both sides of state politics in South Australia and NSW have shut down any such proposition.

“If you want to be 100 percent certain in relation to illicit drugs, if you want to be safe, the message is clear – don’t take them,” said SA Police Superintendent John De Candia at a press conference after Woodward’s death. SA Opposition Leader Steven Marshall, meanwhile, told The Adelaide Advertiser that “the danger of pill testing is that it sends the message to young people that ‘look, this is safe’,” but failed to provide an alternative solution other than ‘don’t take drugs’.

Rather than engaging with new ideas on how to overturn this problem, the go-to reaction of authorities is to say – again – that the only way people can guarantee their own safety is to not take drugs in the first place. It’s far past time we got over this hand-wringing, patronising mindset and started thinking seriously about adopting solutions that have been proven to work.

‘Just Say No’ Vs. Pill Testing: Why One Won’t Work, And Neither’s Enough

The obvious reponse for policy makers who want to be seen to be Doing Something about drug abuse and its resultant effects is to crack down on drug use with harsher criminal penalties for users and dealers, often with ineffective and even dangerous results. In 2002, the NSW government introduced the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act, which gave police powers to patrol music festivals with sniffer dogs.

Despite an Ombudsman investigation finding that sniffer dogs were unreliable, that they did virtually nothing to stop drug trafficking, and that people were more likely to consume drugs and overdose in reaction to their presence, sniffer dogs remain a common sight at NSW music festivals.

The Australian government has invested millions of dollars into anti-drug campaigns, particularly since the death of Sydney teenager Anna Wood from ecstasy in 1995, yet according to studies, use of ecstasy and rates of harm caused by it have continued to steadily increase over the years.

That may be in part because criminalisation helps make drugs crappier and more dangerous to consume. In the 2011 – 2012 period, ecstasy in Australia was found to contain just 18.9% of the active ingredient MDMA and is often cut with other substances like methamphetamine, caffeine, cough suppressants, diet pills and cocaine.

Stefan Woodward was just 19 and possibly more naïve to the dangers of taking drugs when he died, but Sylvia Choi was a 25-year-old pharmacist who likely knew the risks of taking MDMA. So if a person who is trained and aware of all the risks still decided to take drugs anyway, what does that say about the ‘just say no’ message we’ve been pushing so consistently for so long?

Tragically, criminalisation can potentially stop people from seeking help if they think they’re in trouble. 15-year-old Isobel Jones-Reilly died from taking ecstasy in the UK after telling friends not to call an ambulance, and 17-year-old Stephanie Chiakias died from a heroin overdose in the US surrounded by people who were too afraid to call for help. If someone thinks there is a remote possibility they or their friends might get into trouble by seeking medical attention, even the slightest hesitation could put them at further of harm if their situation is critical. Woodward’s friends allegedly called him ‘weak’ for seeking first aid, and the stigma of getting help can only be compounded by the fear of punishment.

Punitive action doesn’t work, but as President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation Alex Wodak says, it’s not really designed to. “Politicians have seen benefits in responding to drugs punitively and relying on the criminal justice system,” Wodak says, suggesting political point-scoring may mean more to our current generation of politicians than ensuring peoples’ safety.

Pill-testing at music festivals has been proposed as at least a partial solution, but there are problems there as well. Even if drug testing were 100 percent reliable (which it isn’t), it’s unlikely people would declare they have drugs in order to get them tested because, you know, they’re illegal. Pill-testing programs run at Australian music festivals before 2007 were severely hampered by the presence of police, who would often track and arrest people they saw using the services.

So if the effectiveness of pill testing is undermined by our current environment, and telling people not to take drugs doesn’t work, what does?

Why Australia Should Genuinely Consider Decriminalisation

Thankfully, this isn’t an area in which we have no examples to turn to. Portugal decriminalised all drug use in 2001, and in the fourteen years since this model was implemented, drug related deaths have fallen significantly. A number of social advantages, including a decrease in drug use, lower rates of HIV/AIDS, more people seeking treatment for addiction, and lower arrest and incarceration rates for drug offences have also been noted.

Portugal isn’t the only country to have adopted various forms of decriminalisation with positive results. Colorado made the recreational use of marijuana legal in 2012, the Netherlands has a well-known ‘non-enforcement’ policy that has been around for years, and in Italy, where the laws have oscillated between decriminalisation and strict penalties, it’s been found that “the policies – whether harsh or lenient – have had little effect on the prevalence of drug use and related metrics”.



Various European countries have flirted with the concept of decriminalisation for over 30 years and from their examples we’ve learned that “countries with some of the harshest criminalisation systems have some of the highest prevalence of drug use in the world, and countries with decriminalisation systems have some of the lowest prevalence.”

Despite the overwhelming success of decriminalisation in places that try it, though, most Australian governments and Parliaments are a long way off from seriously considering such an approach, choosing instead to double down on one we know doesn’t work.

What’s doubly frustrating about the response from SA Police and Marshall is that new approaches to drug policy in Australia have frequently been found to work. South Australia decriminalised marijuana possession in 1987, resulting in fewer people being drawn into the criminal justice system for minor drug offences. The famous Kings Cross supervised injecting centre has been so successful at reducing overdose-related deaths and hospitalisations, it now enjoys bipartisan support in NSW Parliament despite being immensely controversial upon its introduction in 2001.

But despite calls from politicians like Sydney independent MP Alex Greenwich for an end to War on Drugs-style policy responses, the likelihood of state governments taking a political risk and putting large-scale decriminalisation on the table is as far away as ever. Abstinence-only sex education programs don’t work, prohibition of alcohol didn’t work, and telling people not to take drugs doesn’t work either.

Two people have lost their lives and dozens have been hospitalised in the space of a few days, and this won’t be the last time it happens. People know drugs aren’t safe, but that doesn’t stop them from taking them. So let’s make them safer. It’s time for decision makers to start thinking logically instead of reactively.

Katie Milanowicz is a freelance writer from Adelaide. She tweets at @katiemilanowicz