Australian Parliamentary Group For Drug Law Reform

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SpeakersMills Mr John
BusinessPrivate Members Statements


Mr MILLS (Wallsend) [6.06 p.m.]: I raise a matter of conscience that is of concern to many of my constituents, as well as to Labor Party branches in the Wallsend electorate. Last Friday I attended a meeting of the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform, of which I am a member. Members sign the charter for drug law reform, which states:
      This Charter seeks to encourage a more rational, tolerant, non-judgmental, humanitarian and understanding approach to people who currently use illicit drugs in our community. The aims of the Australian Parliamentary Group for Drug Law Reform are to minimise the adverse health, social and economic consequences of Australia’s policies and laws controlling drug use and supply.

It is important to point out some of the short-term goals of the group, which include:
      an increasing focus on the reduction of harm associated with drug use,
      abolition of criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs,
      the adoption on a national basis of the South Australian and Australian Capital Territory expiation notice model for the reform of laws regarding the personal use of marijuana,
      the adoption of a process including consultation and prescription by medical practitioners for selected illicit drugs.

The long-term goals of the group include:
      the reform of drug laws in planned stages with detailed evaluation of such laws at all stages,
      the minimisation of the harmful use of drugs.

Addiction to both legal and illicit drugs is one of the greatest problems facing Australian society. It is certainly one of the great sources of misery to individuals and their families. The solutions to the problem occupy much of the time of parliaments, the judiciary, the legal system and the prison system. Few issues so divide us and lead to angry argument. Illicit drug use and addiction need to be treated primarily as health issues rather than law enforcement issues. Unfortunately, many parliamentarians disagree strongly with that statement. New South Wales is facing an election in which drug addiction will be referred to widely.

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It will be used by some as a vehicle to attack members of Parliament and candidates. Others will attempt to promote even more draconian law enforcement as the only rightful path to follow. I will continue to advance the argument in a reasonable way that draconian law enforcement is an unsympathetic and inhumane way to deal with the addicted person who needs our help, rather than being sent to gaol, to break his or her dependency and achieve a satisfying life. I share the opinion of a Tasmanian colleague who, last Friday, stated that a majority of our State and Federal parliamentarians are well behind public opinion.

Perhaps our combative system of government and opposition politics leads to that fault. I commend the co-convenors of the group, Michael Moore, the Minister for Health in the Australian Capital Territory, and Ann Symonds, who recently retired from the upper House in New South Wales, for their continued leadership. The group’s short-term goal is the abolition of criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs. Honourable members will recall the proposed amendments 12 months ago to the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act to remove custodial penalties for offences of possession and use of not more than small quantities of cannabis.

Amid a lot of high-blown rhetoric and accusatory statements, that bill was defeated by one vote in the Legislative Council. Federal Cabinet suspended the Australian Capital Territory heroin trial that was proposed last year because it said it would send out the wrong message, despite 6:3 support for the trial by police and health Ministers at the ministerial council on drug strategy on 31 July, and despite a Swiss referendum in September 1997, which obtained only 29 per cent support for a ban on medically prescribed heroin in that country.

Another issue of great concern is the high number of deaths due to drug overdoses. In 1995 there were 634 deaths in Australia, which has a population of 18 million. There were only 60 deaths in the Netherlands, which has a population of 15.5 million. Last Friday the parliamentary group met with the council of capital city lord mayors. Those mayors have become most concerned at the social disruption in their cities as a result of drug problems and the harm that they have caused. The attitude in Melbourne is that a safe city is a prosperous one. Melbourne City Council has a program called Sharpsafe - City Safe. Containers for needles are placed in toilets and notices are displayed relating to the reduction of drug harm at four different levels of seriousness, depending on the level of use.

Council aims to reduce harm and to protect the community. It also promotes a needle exchange and foot patrols. Six capital city lord mayors and the general manager of Sydney City Council attended the meeting to which I referred earlier. Their drive for drug law reform in cities is based on the European model - a bottom-up community-based process. I congratulate the capital city lord mayors on their progressive efforts to influence drug policy. It is the unanimous view of councils that there is positive public support for their efforts to promote drug law reform and harm reduction projects. [Time expired.]