Shift in illicit drug rhetoric and policy should not be considered soft

An expansion of the successful Drug Court and trial of a Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Victoria are are examples of a health-based response that reflects a compassionate, evidence-based policy agenda, writes Jesuit Social Services’ policy volunteer MITCHELL GLASS.

Collectively, there is a growing recognition that the current ‘war on drugs’ approach is not an effective framework to combat the harms of illicit drug use. The shift in emphasis from ‘law and order’ to one that is focused on health and the community, does not suggest a ‘soft on crime’ approach. In contrast, it reflects the growing understanding that while people continue to use illicit substances, we need to ensure that treatment and support is a priority in order to keep people, as well as the community around them, safe.

The Inquiry into drug law reform released its final report earlier this year, containing 50 recommendations that await the reply of the Victorian Government. It is a compilation of the responses, submissions and hearings from a number of government and non-government organisations that presented to the Victorian Parliament’s Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee throughout 2017.

It is encouraging to see that a number of the recommendations put forward by Jesuit Social Services during the inquiry have been supported in the committee’s final report. The call to recognise drug use as a health issue and provide greater access to diversionary and support services – which will assist in reducing the number of people interacting with the justice system – are welcome responses.

Additionally, the Victorian Government’s support of further expanding the Drug Court and the trail of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in North Richmond contribute to the commitment of reducing the harms of illicit (and pharmaceutical) drug use outside of the traditional framework of the criminal justice system. These are examples of a health-based response that reflects a compassionate, evidence-based policy agenda that has the support of Jesuit Social Services.

Exploring the options to adopt restorative justice practices – as a means of responding to drug-related offending – is an important component of this shift in rhetorical emphasis from punitive to health care. Yet, unfortunately, this has received minimal attention.

Once considered a global leader of harm minimisation initiatives towards illicit drug use, such as the introduction and success of the Needle and Syringe Program (NSP), Australia has since maintained a cautious and conservative attitude towards illicit drug policy. This inquiry is a pivotal moment in shifting the rhetoric of drug policy. Adopting its key directions and positive reforms will be vital in addressing the needs of some of our most vulnerable communities.