Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) — I am not sure I am pleased to be making a contribution to this bill, because I do not think this bill makes a contribution to reducing harm in our society, sadly. I look at the first preliminary purpose of this bill, which is:
to prohibit the production, sale and advertising of psychoactive substances …
I do not think I have seen a drug bill that does not start off with the notion that we are going to prohibit something. Even in my short time in this Parliament I have seen numerous drugs bills that start off with, ‘We’re going to prohibit’. They do not start off with, ‘We’re going to try to help people’. They do not start off with, ‘We’re going to try to assist people with drug dependency’. They do not start off with, ‘We’re going to try to reduce drug-related deaths in our society’. They start off with, ‘We’re going to prohibit’. We have been prohibiting for many years, as Ms Hartland said. I think it is 50 years we have been going down this prohibition path, and I can tell you that we have not reduced drug deaths one bit. We have not reduced drug use one bit and we certainly have not reduced the profits that organised crime receives from supplying drugs in Australia.
In thinking about my contribution today this is all the more disappointing when yesterday a 37-year-old man died from an overdose in a stairwell in North Richmond, 40 metres away from the North Richmond Health Centre — 40 metres away from where we could have had somewhere that could have prevented him from dying. I know that for many in this chamber there is not a lot of sympathy for that man. But please, let us consider the family he has left behind. Let us consider his parents, his brothers, his sisters and possibly his children — I do not know whether he had children — and his friends. If we had saved his life, we could have possibly brought him back on track. In fact if we can keep addicts alive, they usually age out of drug addiction. We can actually help them to move on and contribute to society. Sadly, this bill does not do that. Last year 477 people died in Victoria of a drug overdose. Yesterday that became 478, with 38 in North Richmond alone.
The National Drug Strategy, to which Victoria is a signatory, operates on the notion of the three pillars of supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction. They are the three pillars of harm minimisation. Sadly, this bill goes to the first pillar: the supply reduction. In fact most of our drug legislation goes to that first pillar of supply reduction. And let us face it, it does not actually reduce supply; that has not been effective. But that is where it goes. All our effort and attention is paid to that one pillar, so how are we expecting to hold a policy of harm minimisation when one pillar receives three-quarters of the funding and the government’s attention. In fact harm reduction receives 2 per cent of our budget. We spend 2 per cent on harm reduction, yet we know that as far as saving lives is concerned that is the most effective and cost-effective tool. We only have to look at the success of our needle exchange program to understand that for every dollar we spend on a needle exchange program we save about $45.
We spend $300 million on treatment. I do acknowledge that this government is putting money into treatment, and I hope it rolls out quickly. I feel that it possibly is not enough soon enough, but I do congratulate them on taking that approach and understanding, sort of, the statement that we heard from former Chief Commissioner of Police Ken Lay:
We can’t arrest our way out of our problems.
We are putting money into treatment, but I never see legislation that is about anything except supply reduction. Out of the $1.7 billion we spend on our National Drug Strategy $1 billion goes on police and enforcement, and it has not worked. Mick Palmer was recently quoted in the Age as having said:
The reality is that, contrary to frequent assertions, drug law enforcement has had little impact on the Australian drug market. This is true in most countries of the world.
That is absolutely true.
We can look at the recent National Drug Strategy household survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2013. It found that 8 million Australians over the age of 14 had used an illicit drug. Nearly 42 per cent of Australians have used an illicit drug and 15 per cent of Australians have used one in the last 12 months. In fact, despite the never-ending attention being paid to supply reduction, law and order and going hard on drugs, Australia actually has some of the highest rates of illicit drug use in the world. Go us! We are continuing down this path of ineffective drug laws, and this bill, in my opinion, is no different.
I too have no great issue with clause 11 of the bill, which will reduce the amount of methamphetamine you need to have in your possession for it to be considered a trafficable amount. But again, by focusing on enforcement do you know what happens? Ten years ago the methamphetamine that was available in Victoria was about 15 to 20 per cent pure. It is around 80 per cent now because this enables the drug dealers and the criminals to bring it in in much smaller packets. If you reduce those commercial trafficking amounts — —
Mr Ramsay interjected.
Ms PATTEN — I would be surprised by that, Mr Ramsay. That is certainly not what the police are telling us at the moment. However, it will mean that we will continue to increase the purity and increase the danger of the product so we have smaller packets. The tougher we get on drugs, the more likely we are to have increased potency in small packages. This increased potency is what is available to consumers, generally unknowing consumers, and this causes far more harm. In some ways these law enforcement efforts are a symptom of the problem; they are not a cure.
I am very fortunate at the moment to be on an inquiry that is looking into drug law reform, and I was very privileged to hear from the Penington Institute, which I do not think anyone would disagree, has been at the forefront of drug research in Victoria and in Australia. They noted to us that in 2015 the National Ice Taskforce, and all Australian governments through the national ice action strategy, acknowledged that the low price, high purity and wide availability of crystal methamphetamine in this country appears to have been unmoved by Australia’s large investment in supply reduction measures. These findings hold true across all major drug types. So it is not just me saying that this is not working. Between October 2011 and September 2016, recorded Victorian state drug offences increased by 54 per cent to 34 368 offences. These were driven primarily by increases in use, possession and trafficking arrests. However, the percentage of Victorians who use drugs has not reduced, so we keep on arresting, but that is not reducing demand and not reducing the number of people actually using drugs.
So who will this law affect? According to the New South Wales Crime Commission, this law will affect organised crime. Organised crime is increasing, and it is at levels not previously seen — this is in New South Wales, but there is no reason to think that this would not be the same in Victoria. The growth of organised crime is almost entirely driven by the prohibited drugs market, and the indicators relied upon for this conclusion include the following: availability of drugs — methamphetamine and cocaine supplies are still high; prices for both drugs are considerably lower than they were five years ago; and the detection and seizures are increasing, both in number and volume. We are catching more drugs, but the demand for them is still increasing, and amazingly the price is going down, so obviously the availability is still increasing.
It was estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics back in 2010 — their next report on this will be out later this year — that we spend about $7.1 billion a year on cannabis, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and amphetamines. It is estimated that for the organised criminals that brings in $5.8 billion a year. That is not a bad earn. In fact you would probably risk a fair bit to earn that sort of money. Even when we look at the increases in penalties and when we look at the reductions in trafficable amounts, $5.8 billion is a pretty tempting amount of money to keep you in business.
What I want to keep pushing on this — and what Mr Ramsay seemed to fail to get — is that when you have demand for a drug, someone will supply it. If you want to reduce supply, how about reducing demand? I think that is a fairly basic economic rationale for anything, yet we focus on supply reduction, not demand reduction. I do just want to note again that this government has promised money for demand reduction through better treatment options, through some early intervention and through, I hope, some good, honest education.
If we all spoke like our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, did yesterday when he was talking about welfare recipients being banned from welfare if they tested positive for drugs, we would not get far. He said, ‘Just don’t do drugs’ — excellent. ‘Just say no’ — I like that. ‘Just don’t do drugs — that’s the answer’. Now, if that was the answer, we would not be standing here having this conversation. If only it was that easy, but it is not.
People use drugs for a lot of reasons, but when you look at problematic drug users, you have to look at their history, and the vast majority of them are coming out of childhoods that we would all shudder at — childhoods of neglect, childhoods of abuse, childhoods of violence. In fact of people who overdose, and sadly that is only one area where we can look at the background of drug users and drug addicts, 50 per cent of them had reported mental illnesses. So we are talking about a very sad and vulnerable part of our community, and we need to be helping them. If we can help that top end of our drug users, that will go a long way towards reducing the demand. It will go a long way, and it will also go a long way, I hope, towards reducing the harm that drugs and our drug laws place upon our society.
And it is not just the users. You only have to look at North Richmond, where residents are scared of letting their children out to play or letting their grandchildren come over for fear that they will get a needlestick injury. A woman I was speaking to the other day is scared every time she drives into her driveway that someone is going to be slumped over, dead from an overdose, in her carport. Ms Hartland has had that experience in her own front yard.
This is the effect that it has on our society — the break and enter offences, the crime, the number of people in jail. Let us face it: 65 per cent of people in our jails are there for drug-related offences, and most of them are drug users. So if we could take a different approach to our drug policies, we could have far better outcomes. Every study shows that our current approaches do not work. Increasing stigma is just the way to stop someone from getting treatment.
Someone actually — in fact I think it may have been the Penington Institute — used the analogy of cancer. I do not recall this, but they were telling me that 40 or even 50 years ago people were too embarrassed to say they might have breast cancer. They were too embarrassed. There was this stigma around cancer. You did not want to talk about having cancer. You did not seek treatment. We are doing the same to drug users, and we are killing them. Drug overdoses account for more deaths in Victoria than our road toll.
These laws might make it easier to bust people for trafficking, but what about helping them get back on track? It does not do any of that. With only 2 per cent of our budget spent on harm reduction, the most effective harm minimisation strategy, why are we not urgently doing something to prevent overdoses in our society?
When I look at the statistics from the Coroners Court, I am sorry, I understand the great harms and the increasing dangers of methamphetamines, but do you know what kills people? Benzodiazepines. Ninety-eight per cent of overdose deaths in Victoria involve a benzodiazepine. I can tell you they are getting onto the market in a whole bunch of different ways. Are we increasing the penalties for illicitly selling benzodiazepines, which lead to more deaths? What gets my goat even further is that we do not test for them in drug-driving tests. We will arrest someone because they had a joint four weeks ago and are in no way impaired on the road, but we do not even test for whether they are out of it on benzodiazepine. We have got the wrong focus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) met, and as we all know, it is the United Nations leading health agency. It has called on countries around the world to end the criminalisation of drugs. This call was made in a report published in 2014. The World Health Organization’s unambiguous recommendation is clearly grounded in concerns for public health and human rights.
In the report WHO said:
Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalise injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.
I do not know what experts this government is listening to, but I actually would listen to the World Health Organization. I actually think they have got some fairly clever people up there. To reduce supply we need to reduce demand. The government says these measures will save lives. The reality is they will not.
I would like just quickly to touch on opioid replacement therapy being allowed in police cells. I am very pleased with that. We know opioid replacement therapy is a very effective form of harm reduction and demand reduction. It works; we know it works. Unfortunately in Victoria we have an ageing population of prescribers. We are starting to see prescribers retire. We are starting to see chemists who have been supplying methadone to Victorians for 20 years retire and close down. We are about to find ourselves with a real problem with our opioid replacement therapy programs in Victoria. But I am pleased that the government is making those much-needed and very effective therapies available to prisoners while they are in the police cells.
I would just like to turn to the psychoactive substances. The intention of the bill is to prohibit the production, sale and advertising of psychoactive substances. I have seen this bill before. I have seen it many times before. I have seen it fail before. I have seen it fail many times. In fact in 2014, 40 new laws on new psychoactive substances were introduced around Australia. There have been a number more since then. There have been 76 cannabinoids or classes of cannabinoids scheduled. I note there are another 30 or 40 being scheduled in this bill we are debating today. At last count in 2014 there were over 600. I think there are probably close to 900 such substances available on the market in the world today.
This bill, which as the government proudly states follows the model used in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, has been completely ineffective in all of those states. In fact it has not led to one conviction where a defence has been mounted. That is because it is really difficult to use a reactive, prohibitionist model on an emerging drug market, where the drug is changing all the time and where you do not know what that drug does, and that is the danger of these drugs. I grant you that these drugs can be very dangerous.
But let us just briefly turn our minds to the New Zealand model. New Zealand had a real issue with new psychoactive substances. They were seeing a lot of adverse effects from them. They went down this other path. They went down this path where they said, ‘You know what? We’re going to regulate these drugs. We’re going to regulate and we’re going to control them’. In the early days they were still receiving people in hospitals. In fact the number of people presenting to hospital increased, and that was seen as a good thing because New Zealanders felt that they could go to hospital if they had a problem. Until then they were scared to do so, because they thought they might be arrested. But since then the number presenting has reduced entirely.
What New Zealand also saw was a reduction, which I think is what we would all aim for, from about 4000 outlets to 150 licensed retailers, and every product that was sold was listed and reported. Any adverse reaction was listed, and those drugs were taken off the market very simply and very easily. In fact in Victoria a few years ago there was an unofficial position like that, so that in some of the adult stores that were selling some of these substances if an adverse effect was reported by a customer, and they did not hold back in doing that, that report was relayed to the police and vice versa — if the police found an adverse effect of a new psychoactive substance, they reported it to the industry and the industry had that product taken off the shelves. We were able to track these products. It worked. It made sense.
I look forward to discussing this bill in the committee stage, because what we are banning is substances that have a psychoactive effect — a significant psychoactive effect. So what does that mean? A ‘psychoactive effect’ means:
stimulation or depression of the person’s central nervous system, resulting in hallucinations or in a significant disturbance in, or significant change to, motor function, thinking, behaviour, perception, awareness or mood …
Now, in gauging what that psychoactive effect means — ‘a significant change in perception, awareness or mood’ — is the effect of two glasses of wine a significant effect in mood? Is that a significant effect? Or is it that I cannot see straight, I am dizzy and I cannot walk straight? Is that significant? I think this will be worth exploring. Then, on top of that, how will the police officer who is undertaking this seizure, arrest and prosecution be able to prove that that product has a significant psychoactive effect?
These products are brand new. They have not been tested on humans. They have not been tested on rats. No-one knows the effect of these substances, so how are they going to prove that these substances have a significant psychoactive effect? I find it interesting that we talk about them having these significant effects, because it means that maybe if they do not have a significant effect they are okay. Maybe some of the new psychoactive substances on the market will be fine because their effects will not be considered significant.
I hate to be so negative, but unfortunately when it comes to drug policy, there is nothing good about it. Although I will point out, and I think this is probably one of the most remarkable parts of this bill, that the use and possession of new psychoactive substances will not be illegal. The sale of the substance may be illegal, but the use and possession of that substance will not be illegal. This is a decriminalisation model. Why can we not do this for all substances? Why can we not decriminalise the use and possession of all substances and treat drug use as it should be? It is a health issue; it should not be a criminal one.
While I welcome further exploring this bill in the committee process, I honestly cannot support this bill. I would like to finish my contribution with a quote from the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, who for the first time ever was invited to address the opening plenary session of the World Health Organization, and she said:
We must not forget that the ultimate objective of drug control policies is to save lives.
Motion agreed to.
Read second time.
Ordered to be committed next day.