What is decriminalisation?

Many readers will have recently seen or heard calls to decriminalise personal illicit drug use in Australia and Tasmania.

It is not a new topic by any means, but it is one the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council (ATDC) Tasmania believes will start to attract more attention in the short to medium-term if interstate and international experiences are any measure.

The ATDC has long advocated for the removal of criminal penalties for people who are found with small quantities of illicit drugs for personal use.

It is important to state at the outset that decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation.

Under a decriminalisation model that we would support, it would still be a criminal offence to produce illicit drugs and to traffic them.

In 2019/20, there were 166,321 drug arrests in Australia, including 2,790 in Tasmania – the vast majority of whom (85 per cent) were charged with use, possession or administering a drug for their own personal use.

There are many locations around the world where a decriminalisation model has been introduced. In these jurisdictions research has found that decriminalisation did not increase drug use, did not increase crime, reduced the cost to society and removed negative consequences (stigma associated with criminal convictions for drug use).

Closer to home, in October this year the ACT Government decriminalised small amounts of commonly used illicit drugs.

Under the ACT law, people found with small amounts of certain drugs that are considered to be personal possession (smaller than trafficable quantities) would be subject to fines rather than criminal charges.

The ACT Minister for Health, Rachel Stephen-Smith, said:

“We know from research and evidence around the world that criminalising drug users does not reduce drug use and that treating drug addiction as a health issue improves outcomes for everyone in the community.”

The ATDC agrees – an individual’s illicit drug use should be seen first and foremost as a health issue.

As noted, the ATDC has supported decriminalisation of drug use for a number of years.

It will significantly deliver health and wellbeing improvements through enabling people to be more comfortable about being open to seek health advice related to drugs. Right now a lot of people keep their use quiet out of shame or fear. This means they don’t talk about it and quietly suffer. Research shows that removing criminal penalties will benefit all people who use drugs, not to mention their families, friends and carers as more people will engage with health services.

There is considerable interest around Australia in decriminalisation with an increasing acknowledgement that as a community there needs to be a different approach. For example, in Tasmania data collected in 2019 reveals that the vast majority of people surveyed felt that the use of cannabis should not attract criminal penalties.

We believe the time is right to continue the conversation with the community and the Tasmanian Government about this important issue.

First published in The Mercury newspaper