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Dutton’s department fights NSW calls to decriminalise the drug ice

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The Department of Home Affairs has pushed back on growing calls to decriminalise amphetamine-type drugs, warning any move to change state laws would create “legal ambiguity” and lead to “perverse outcomes”.

A New South Wales government-commissioned inquiry into the drug ice and other amphetamine-type stimulants is considering legalisation or decriminalisation as a means of addressing growing prevalence of crystal methamphetamine addiction in parts of the state.

Established in November last year following a spate of ice-related deaths, the inquiry has heard from a chorus of health and legal experts including the NSW Bar Association, who say the criminalisation of drug addicts may be causing more harm than drug use itself.


But the federal Department of Home Affairs, headed by Peter Dutton, has pushed back strongly on any attempt by the states to change drug policy.

Despite the vast majority of organisations in favour of decriminalisation for personal drug use explicitly stating their support for maintaining laws around trafficking and importation, home affairs has argued any move to decriminalisation would create “uncertainty for law enforcement and at the Australian border”.

In its submission, the department claimed organised crime groups would “seek to exploit and to capitalise on any ambiguity or gaps in legislative frameworks” if NSW considered changes to state law.

It said decriminalisation or legalisation of amphetamine-type stimulants by NSW “would create legal ambiguity” between the state and the commonwealth, and argued that “piecemeal decriminalisation” could “lead to perverse legal outcomes”.

But other law enforcement agencies appear to disagree.

The NSW Crime Commission, which investigates serious and organised criminal activity in the state, took a different view in its submission, stating that current law enforcement efforts to stop importation and distribution of ice were “not very effective in reducing the production and supply”.

The commission pointed to the high proportion of government spending which goes to enforcement strategies compared with harm reduction, and said that harsh law enforcement responses aimed at drug users have been found to have a negative effect on society and often exacerbate the problem. It also pointed to evidence of positive societal impacts harm reduction strategies can have.

“The first medically supervised injecting centre (MSIC) opened in Kings Cross in 2001. As of 2015 almost one million injections have been supervised at this facility, with the management of almost 6,000 overdoses and no reported fatalities,” the commission’s submission said.

“The MSIC has made 12,000 referrals to health and welfare services in order to assist and divert users, and has reduced the ambulance callout rate by 80%, thus reducing the burden on the healthcare system.”

The NSW Crime Commission points to the medically supervised injection centre in Sydney as an example of successful harm reduction approaches to illegal drug use.

The NSW Crime Commission points to the medically supervised injection centre in Sydney’s Kings Cross as an example of successful harm reduction approaches to illegal drug use. Photograph: Paul Miller/AAP

The inquiry has also heard from a number of health and legal authorities calling for decriminalisation and pointing to the failure of law enforcement efforts to curb illicit drug addiction.

In its submission, the NSW Bar Association did not support the decriminalisation of production, trafficking and supply of illicit drugs, but said it believed “consideration should be given to decriminalisation of personal acquisition, possession and use of illicit drugs, with increased focus on treatment and harm-reduction measures”.

The association argued that “criminalisation of personal drug use may result in greater harm to the individual, and to society more broadly”, and said there was “no doubt” that organised crime networks “rely on prohibition for their business model and profit margins”.

It called for NSW to adopt the approach taken in Portugal, where personal drug use was decriminalised in 2001, by using civil orders to deal with personal drug acquisition, possession and use.

Such an approach, it said, “would alleviate the harms caused by the criminalisation of drug use, while facilitating a public health approach to the use of drugs”.

The inquiry’s consideration of decriminalisation comes in the wake of an inquest held into opioid-related deaths in which the deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame called for a complete reframing of drug policy in the state and said the government should consider “decriminalising personal use of drugs, as a mechanism to reduce the harm caused by drug use”.

The inquiry is to report in October.

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