We can reduce harm and save lives.
We can reduce costs to the criminal justice system and in acute health care.
We can reduce stigma.
We can intervene early to change the trajectory of a person’s life.
We can do this by treating drug use as a health issue with a health solution, not a criminal one.
That is what this bill will achieve by one simple mechanism.
Of drug arrests in Victoria, 93.5 per cent are consumer arrests, as compared to 6.5 per cent supplier arrests.
Of the 32 860 drug arrests in Victoria last year, 26 195, or just on 80 per cent, were for the offences of drug use or possession only. Seventy-two Victorians are arrested every day for drug use or possession and most of them young people.
Possession or attempted possession of a drug of dependence is around the third most common charge heard in the Magistrates Court of Victoria. 21 263 charges for this offence were finalised in the Magistrates Court in the 2018–19 financial year, when the court last reported this data.
Despite the existence of drug diversion programs intended to divert people away from the criminal justice system, the majority of people charged with drug use or possession do not escape it.
This is a drain on police resources, which could be much better focused on serious crime, as we know they want to be. The Victoria Police Drug Strategy 2020–2025 makes this clear. This strategy states that ‘Victoria Police recognises that drug problems are first and foremost health issues’. It goes on to say that ‘Victoria Police has an important role … in … connecting people who need help into treatment by diverting and referring them to services that support them to recover and be active members of society’ including ‘supporting health-led prevention-first approaches’. Their operational focus is disrupting and reducing supply at the mid-tier and high-tier levels—on organised crime and traffickers. But the law as it stands today is constraining and it means that extensive police resources continue to be tied up in policing minor drug offending—something that police acknowledge is a health issue, not a criminal one.
This bill will change that.
Under my proposal, Victoria Police will issue a drug education or treatment notice that refers a person to drug education or treatment if that person is believed on reasonable grounds to have used a drug of dependence or possessed a small quantity of a drug of dependence.
Compliance with a drug education or treatment notice will result in no finding of guilt and no recorded criminal outcome. More importantly, it will result in a health intervention, and an early one at that.
This is a concise mechanism to treat drug use and possession as a health issue with a health solution.
In many respects, this is not a big paradigm shift. Cautioning and diversion programs currently exist to achieve this exact end, and have done for decades, but they have huge gaps. Diversion is typically reserved for low-level and first-time offenders. Strict eligibility requirements, inconsistent service delivery and a reliance on the exercise of police discretion limit access to many. Aboriginal Victorians are disproportionately affected. Large numbers of people continue to fall through these gaps and are instead policed and sanctioned.
The evidence is clear: there is a better way.
It fits entirely within this government’s crime prevention strategy, which focuses on early intervention, with the distinct goals of ensuring that fewer Victorians come into contact with the criminal justice system and that more people at risk of offending are connected earlier with more effective support.
There is strong public support in Victoria and Australia for decriminalisation approaches.
Many countries around the world have already decriminalised drug use and possession in various ways.
The World Health Organization has recommended the decriminalisation of injecting and other drug use, in partnership with the United Nations.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy has long supported such an approach and has advocated that ‘there must be no penalty whatsoever imposed for low-level possession and/or consumption offenses.’
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians have stated that governments ‘need to move away from the dominant paradigm of criminality’ and increase focus on health and wellbeing through the removal and replacement of criminal penalties with health interventions to target ‘an individual’s use of a drug where no serious harm is caused to others’.
It stands to reason, and that is what this bill will achieve.
Turning to the detail, the primary purpose of the bill is to amend the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981 to provide for the offences of using and possessing a drug of dependence in a small quantity to be dealt with by way of a drug education or treatment notice.
The bill nominally commences on 1 July 2022, if not proclaimed earlier.
The bill creates a distinction between possessing a drug of dependence in a small quantity and possessing a drug of dependence in more than a small quantity.
Schedule 11 of the principal act, which sets out the small quantities of any given drug, is unaffected by this bill.
For possession of a small quantity, the bill creates a new summary offence, fixes a maximum penalty of 1 penalty unit for that offence and provides that where a person is believed on reasonable grounds to have committed the offence, they must be served with a drug education and treatment notice.
Likewise, the maximum penalty for use of a drug of dependence is reduced to 1 penalty unit. That offence becomes a summary offence, and the same framework is applied with respect to the service of an education or treatment notice.
The bill sets out what a drug education and treatment notice is and what it is must contain. A drug education and treatment notice will direct a person to engage with services or programs in order to address the person’s use of drugs of dependence for a specified period of not more than 12 months.
The specifics, including approved drug education programs and providers, will be determined via regulation.
Compliance with a drug education or treatment notice will mean that no proceeding may be commenced and no admission of guilt or conviction recorded.
Matters can still proceed to court if a person elects to do so or in circumstances where there is a failure to comply with a drug education or treatment notice.
The bill makes consequential amendments to the circumstances where adjourned bonds are to be given.
Importantly, police search and seizure powers are unaffected.
Finally, I would like to quote again from the police drug strategy: ‘Drug users could be our children, members of our family, our friends or people who have lost their way. When we see the human, we will see the way forward’.
This is intelligent change based firmly on evidence and has the overwhelming support of the community.
I commend the bill.