Establishment — Motion

HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [2.47 pm]: I move —

(1)  A select committee examining alternate approaches to reducing illicit drug use and its effects on the community is established.

(2)  The select committee is to inquire into and report on —

(a)  other Australian state jurisdictions and international approaches (including Portugal) to reducing harm from illicit drug use, including the relative weighting given to enforcement, health and social interventions;

(b)  a comparison of effectiveness and cost to the community of drug-related laws between Western Australia and other jurisdictions;

(c)  the applicability of alternate approaches to minimising harms from illicit drug use from other jurisdictions to the Western Australian context; and

(d)  consider any other relevant matter.

(3)  The select committee is to report no later than 12 months after the motion is agreed to.

(4)  The select committee shall consist of five members: Hon Alison Xamon (Chair); Hon Samantha Rowe (Deputy Chair); Hon Colin de Grussa; Hon Michael Mischin; and Hon Aaron Stonehouse.

I rise to discuss the establishment of a select committee to look into alternate approaches to illicit drug use. This has been the subject of discussion with other parties behind the Chair and it is my understanding that there is some support to establish this committee. As such, I am hopeful that I can keep my contribution fairly focused, because I would hope that if this committee is established, we can develop that work further.

The issue of illicit drug use in our community and its effect on individuals, families and carers of people; its effect on people who are subject to crime as a result of illicit drug use; and its impact on our health services and on people who find themselves with criminal records as a result of their illicit drug use is an enormously complex problem. Of course, when I talk about illicit drug use, I am talking about a wide range of potential drugs—anything from marijuana through to 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, heroin and meth, and a whole range of other drugs as well. We know that we do not have all the answers and that the way we are doing things at the moment clearly is not right. We know that because far too many people still succumb to drug addiction and find that they are not able to get the support that they need when they need it. Indeed, when we talk about harm-minimisation measures, it is a wicked problem to try to figure out the right balance between the role of law enforcement, the role of support services and what we need to support people to not engage in harmful illicit drug use in the first place.

The “Better Choices. Better Lives. Western Australian Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015–2025” paints a very concerning picture of drug use within Western Australia. We know that one in five Western Australians over the age of 14 will have recently used illicit drugs, one in 10 will have recently used cannabis and one in 25 will have recently used amphetamines or methamphetamine. In fact, the alcohol and drug-related hospitalisation rate percapita is 1.38times higher in regional WA than that reported in the metropolitan area. It is estimated that at least 30 per cent to 50 per cent of people with an alcohol and/or drug problem also have a co-occurring mental illness, and there is frequently an increase in alcohol and other drug use in the period before a person suicides. WA data from the coroner indicates that nearly a third of males and a quarter of females had alcohol and other drug use issues noted three months prior to their deaths. Drug-related problems have a significant influence on the disparity in health and life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in our state. Aboriginal people account for 3.8per cent of the state’s population, yet represent approximately 18.2 per cent of treatment episodes at state government–funded treatment services.

Parental drug and alcohol use is one of the major factors associated with children being brought into care in Western Australia. Research shows that the impact of parental alcohol or other drug use detrimentally affects parenting ability across all domains, with a range of negative consequences for children from the point of conception on, including a compromised ability to care for and to protect their children, an elevated risk of physical abuse and violence, exposure to criminal behaviour and material deprivation and neglect.

Findings taken from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s “National Wastewater Monitoring Program: report 2”, released in July last year, detail a concerning picture about the incidence of drug use in Western Australia. This program measures the concentration of drugs metabolised and excreted into sewer systems within aselect number of metropolitan and regional sites across Australia between October 2016 and February 2017. When it comes to the meth concentration, Western Australia and South Australia possess the highest normalised consumption volume nationally. All cities in WA have higher consumption than the national average, and WA has the highest levels of meth consumption in regional areas. Cocaine and MDMA, or ecstasy, consumption in WA are both below the national average, but patterns of drug use are constantly changing and the government needs to be alert to respond to those changing patterns. In WA, for example, heroin was the most common cause of overdose 20 years ago—I lost a couple of friends to heroin overdose—but now prescription opioids are responsible for most of the overdose deaths.

Although, for good reason, the harms from meth use are at the forefront of our minds, I think it is really important that we do not lose sight of the impact that other drugs have as well. In 2017, the Mental Health Commission found that the drugs of concern for those seeking treatment at state government–funded treatment services in regional areas in 2016 were alcohol—we are talking 31.3 per cent—amphetamine-type stimulants at 30.7 per cent and also cannabinoids at 22.2 per cent. These are people who were actively seeking out assistance. Further, WA is in the unfortunate position of being the state with the greatest increase in accidental drug-related deaths. Over the last 15 years, the number of deaths has almost doubled, and illicit drugs are still a key contributor to this statistic. But, of course, meth is not the main culprit when it comes to overdose.

I thought I would say something about the issue of drugs in prisons, because there is a direct correlation between the issues around our failure to adequately address the complex nature of illicit drug use and the fact that so many prisoners are struggling with this as well. Illicit drug use in prisons is a huge problem in WA in terms of both driving crime and providing effective treatment services. Reports on drug-related crimes and criminal activity are the most common reason for the public to contact Crime Stoppers in WA. In 2016, 13 per cent of offenders in WA prisons were imprisoned for illicit drug offences and 67 per cent reported using drugs in the 12 months before their imprisonment. A review referred to in the Department of Health’s 2015 report into mental health and substance abuse in WA prisons found that more than 80 per cent of prisoners and offenders appearing before courts in WA had substance abuse problems. This is in the context of the prison population rising sharply in the past three years, increasing from over 5 000 people in July 2014 to over 6 000 in December 2016.

In November 2017, the Auditor General released a damning report on drug and alcohol use in prisons. The Auditor General’s conclusions were that the department did not have an up-to-date, strategic approach to minimising drug and alcohol use in prisons that reflects the current drugs of choice and the substantial impact of an increased prison population; the department does not have a comprehensive understanding of the extent of drug and alcohol use in each prison and across the prison system; efforts to limit supply are being undermined by poorly executed search practices, limited intelligence communication and limited access to drug testing systems, which I think has certainly been borne out by some of the most recent investigations; and prisoners’ treatment needs are not being met. As a result, we are missing a key opportunity to intervene in people’s demand for drugs and alcohol and rehabilitation before they are released back into the community. Having a good grasp of the extent of the problem and ensuring access to appropriate treatment programs is going to be fundamental if we are serious about assisting prisoners to successfully rehabilitate and reintegrate into the community, and we really do have a very long way to go in that regard.

There are financial costs, apart from the cost to the community and the cost to the individual, if we do not address this issue. I will give a bit of an example on meth use. Meth, as members know, is currently the illicit drug receiving the most extensive coverage, particularly in the media, and understandably, because people in the grip of meth addiction behave in ways that can be extraordinarily confronting and downright dangerous sometimes for the community. As a result, meth is the subject of the most political engagement. The Australian government funded a study to comprehensively evaluate the social and economic harms arising from methamphetamine use. I think that is a really useful starting point. It is fair to assume that if other illicit drugs had been included, the costs that I am about to illustrate would have been higher. The findings were released in October last year. The overall cost of methamphetamine use to Australia was found to be $5 billion in 2013–14. Crime and the criminal justice system was the largest single cost at $1.9 billion. That is before the cost to victims of crime of $1.3 billion is added. Those figures do not include the cost of federal police, federal courts or border protection. Other costs were quantified as mortality, at $761.8million; employment, at $289.4million; health costs, such as hospitals, emergency departments, treatment and general practitioners, at $270.8 million; child maltreatment at $260.4 million; road traffic accidents, at $125.2 million; prevention and harm reduction measures, at $40 million; and clandestine laboratories, at $11.7 million. We are talking big money! That is without even talking about the human cost and the cost to the community.

The same study attempted to also separately quantify the cost to partners and dependent children. Although collecting that kind of data can be problematic, the findings were that the economic cost of meth use to partners and children was in the order of $3.3 billion. Problems with collecting this data notwithstanding, it is clear that the costs are extremely high. Of course, as I illustrated earlier, Western Australia’s portion of these costs is overrepresented yet again.

In my motion I proposed that one thing a committee would do is undertake a cross-jurisdictional analysis of the sorts of approaches that are working and those that have found to potentially not be helpful. Something I specifically did as a point of reference was refer to the situation in Portugal, but not because I have a particular attachment to it. I will give members an overview of that, but not because I am attached to the Portuguese model. I would have to look at it in more detail to ascertain whether the model proposed there would be suitable in a Western Australian context. I am also aware that although the Portuguese model has been feted by many people who are interested in reform in the space, it has not been without its critics and concerns have been raised about it.

The significance of the Portuguese model is that it has shown that by taking an entirely different approach to the way illicit drug use is dealt with, there is the capacity to turn things around. In the 1990s, there were around 360 drug deaths a year in Portugal. The country now has one of Europe’s lowest rates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use. In 2016, the number of overdose deaths was 26.

Since 2001, the Portuguese have treated illicit drug use as a health problem, not as a criminal issue. Portugal has decriminalised the acquisition, possession and use of small quantities of previously illicit drugs. Instead of legal prosecution, persons found with a quantity of drugs are evaluated by a local commission for the dissuasion of drug addiction. It is important to note that the emphasis is on trying to dissuade people from taking illicit drugs. Importantly, punitive sanctions have been retained as an option, but the objective is to explore the need for treatment and to promote healthy recovery among drug users. Decriminalisation is not designed to function on its own. It frees up funding for treatment methods and harm reduction.

In Portugal, all addiction treatment is free. The country invests heavily in treatment and recovery facilities and networks those services to make it as easy as possible for people to tap into them. The reallocation of funds into harm reduction treatments such as needle exchanges and methadone clinics to combat the major drug affecting Portugal—that is, heroin—has resulted in asignificant fall in HIV diagnoses. In 2000, ayear before decriminalisation was enacted, 2 758 people were diagnosed with HIV, 1 430 of whom were drug users—that is, 52 per cent. By 2010, that number had fallen to 1 107 people diagnosed with HIV, of which only 163 were drug users. In that time it had fallen to 15 per cent.

This approach has also relieved a significant amount of pressure from the criminal justice system. In 2000, Portugal reported 14 276 drug-related arrests and 3 829 incarcerations for drug law violations, which is roughly 43 per cent of the convicted prison population. By 2010, the number of incarcerations for drug-related crimes had dropped to 1 950, with drug law violators comprising only 21 per cent of the prison population. Ninety per cent of those drug-related prisoners were sentenced for trafficking offences, eight per cent for minor trafficking and two per cent for traffic–use.

Although what has worked in Portugal will not necessarily translate to Western Australia because of differences in our political systems and cultures, there is significant value in examining the factors that led to Portugal’s success and seeing whether aspects of what it has done can be applied here.

If the committee is established, one of the big challenges will be to narrow down the scope of exactly what it will look at. The committee will run for only 12 months, but with the amount of work it could potentially be looking at, it could go for years. One thing we will need to look at is the type of drugs we focus on—whether it be marijuana, MDMA, heroin or meth. We know that the types of approaches that might be taken for one drug will not necessarily translate to other drugs.

Debate adjourned, pursuant to standing orders.


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