Do Courts take certain drugs offences more seriously than others?
Illicit drug use is a huge health concern in Australia that has a major impact on our society both socially and economically. According to a report by Australia Institute of Health and Welfare Australians pay around $8.2 billion in addressing the problems associated with illicit drug use through crime, productivity loss and health care costs. Statistics show that 1.8% of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia is due to illicit drug use.
In 2013 it was reported that 2.9 million Australians aged 14 and over used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months, and 8 million were estimated to have done so at some point in their life (Source: National Drug Strategy Household Survey).
In spite of the introduction of Australia’s National Illicit Drug Strategy “Tough on Drugs” in 1998, the number of people using drugs has not decreased. According to statistics illicit drug use has remained pretty stable for the past 20 years at approximately 15%. As Mick Palmer, former AFP Commissioner, notes “drug law enforcement has had little impact on the Australian drug market” (Source: The Conversation).
Instead critics argue it just puts a huge strain on our criminal justice system that ends up costing tax payers and criminalises a majority of our most vulnerable citizens.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reveals that drug related deaths have reached an all time record high in the past 20 years with 1,808 drug deaths recorded in 2016 alone.
If Australia’s “Tough on Drugs” strategy was aimed at reducing the supply, trafficking and demand of drugs, than why are we having more arrests and more deaths due to drugs?
Are we treating certain drugs more seriously than others?
All drugs are considered equal under the law. According to the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act, it is illegal to possess, supply, manufacture, import or export a prohibited drug. Whether it is heroin, crystal meth, or cannabis, the maximum penalty for drug possession is a fine of 20 penalty units and/or 2 years imprisonment. Similarly, the maximum penalty for supplying a prohibited drug is a fine of 2000 penalty units and/or 15 years imprisonment.
Full prohibition of all illicit drugs is currently in place in NSW, which means drug possession; use and supply are all criminal offences.
A majority of Australian states have “decriminalised” cannabis. However, this “prohibition with civil penalties” model does not completely decriminalise personal cannabis use. Under this model cannabis possession is still against the law with offenders still being able to receive criminal convictions if they do not pay expiation fees on time (Single, Christie & Ali, 2000).
Is this model working?
Of the 154,000 people arrested for drugs each year, there were two times more cannabis arrests than arrests related to amphetamine possession and supply, according to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s (ACIC) Illicit Drug Data Report. The report shows in 2015-16 there were 79,643 arrests for cannabis use and supply — “an increase of about 10,000 over the last ten years.” In comparison, there were 47,625 arrests for amphetamines.
Most Australians agree to “decriminalisation” in some form for all drugs (i.e. caution, civil penalty or diversion). One in four Australians (26%) agree that the personal use of cannabis should be legal, according to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2016 Report.
The Prescription Drug Crisis
The issue these days however are a lot of our drug problems may not be due to illicit drugs alone. Drug induced deaths of the past that were attributed to illicit drugs like morphine and heroin are now commonly associated with prescription drugs like Tramadol and Oxycontin, according to ABS’s director of Health and Vital Statistics James Eynstone-Hinkins.
Why is that not part of our “Tough on Drugs” strategy?
It is prescription medication that is blamed for Australia’s highest number of drug-induced deaths since the 1990s, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data. Chief executive director of ScriptWise, Bee Mohamed, says the “overprescription, lack of awareness about the risks, and lack of government action, were behind the rising death toll.” Bee argues the government “keeps diverting funding and resources to illicit drugs when that’s really not the real issue” (Source: Brisbane Times).
Critics argue it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is the illegal status of drugs that are causing significant harms to the user and our community. They ascertain a new approach is needed – a legal framework that calls for depenalisation and decriminalization of illicit drugs.
What we also need is a means to address our legal prescription drug crisis as well.