Establishment — Motion

Resumed from 19 September on the following motion moved by Hon Alison Xamon —

(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.

HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [1.09 pm]: I will very briefly review the key points I made in my opening contribution to this motion. I note from discussions behind the Chair that there appears to be broad support for the establishment of this select committee. I think that it will be really useful if members wish to contribute to this debate, for them to express their particular thoughts about what areas of focus they believe the committee should consider. In my opening remarks I said that there is a real illicit drug use problem within Western Australia. I outlined some of the statistics that illustrate that, particularly within the 10-year mental health, alcohol and other drug services plan, which paints a rather grim picture of not only the rate of illicit drug use, but also the need for services to address the issue. I also spoke about the deepening concern about the rate of drug use within our prison system, the fact that there is a genuine problem—that drugs can get into prisons at all of course— but also the fact that so many people within the prison system are there either directly because of drugs charges or very often a range of offences around offending behaviours that can be directly attributed to their illicit drug taking, and what a problem that is as well. I also spoke about the need to genuinely quantify the cost to the community of a business-as-usual approach when it comes to the issue of illicit drug use. Obviously there are issues around policing, prisons and prison intervention, and the need to deliver services, but also the human cost and the cost of lost opportunities for people—the cost to families and to children whose lives are detrimentally affected by the current approaches to the issue of illicit drug use.

I began concluding my remarks by talking about the specific example of Portugal and what is occurring there. In Portugal, due to the astronomical number of deaths from heroin use in particular, a decision was made to completely change the approach to dealing with what had absolutely become an illicit drug crisis by effectively treating the drug issue as a health crisis and not a criminal crisis. Before my time ran out I had also begun to say that it is really important that we note that just because a particular approach has had particular success within Portugal, it is not without its criticisms. It is useful to learn not only from the successes of other jurisdictions, but also from how systems can be improved. Importantly, we need to recognise that it is always difficult, particularly when we are talking about overseas jurisdictions, to translate it directly to Western Australia, because we have different systems and cultures. The committee would need to go in with an eye to interrogating the validity of other systems in international jurisdictions, as well as other states, to see how that would fit within the Western Australian context. Hopefully, it would be able to see whether there are elements of particular jurisdictions from which we can learn and which may be able to be applied successfully within Western Australia.

I also think that one challenge for this committee, should it be established, is to ensure that within a 12-month period we focus on where we want to primarily focus our attention. My concern is that the issue of illicit drug use and abuse is very broad and that the sort of approaches we may want to take to the issue, for example, of marijuana, could be and most likely will be very different from how we deal with another drug, such as meth. It is very important to note that there will be no one-size-fits-all approach to how we address illicit drug use. As I have said, I hope that one lens that we would be applying would look at how a more health-based approach would work in practice, remembering that harm minimisation, the sheer definition of it, is also about incorporating a level of law enforcement. That is recognised as being an important and legitimate part of how we deal with illicit drug use, but the issue is: where is that line appropriately drawn and what does that look like? For example, different approaches are constantly canvassed about an appropriate way to address the issue of marijuana. The reality is that in the same way that many people can drink alcohol and not develop issues of abuse around that, certainly it is the case, and it needs to be recognised, that many people can recreationally smoke marijuana and not experience long-term, or even short-term, adverse effects. However, I also recognise that for some people marijuana can be a very serious drug. I am one person who has had personal experience of a family member who unfortunately has experienced the correlation between psychosis and excessive marijuana use. That raises legitimate concerns about what is the appropriate way to ensure that although some people may want to recreationally use marijuana, and perhaps it would be inappropriate to have those people subject to criminal proceedings and a criminal record of any sort, a harm minimisation approach recognises that harm is implicit within all drug use, whether it be marijuana, alcohol or cigarettes. What is the balance that is appropriately struck to ensure that people are getting the assistance they need?

Another big challenge for the committee will be the issue of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or ecstasy. Emerging research is occurring around the therapeutic value of certain types of MDMA under close clinical supervision. That research, in particular, is occurring at Curtin University. It is going to be an interesting issue to explore. As part of that, if the committee decides to look at the issue of MDMA or other types of pills, it will need to consider the role of pill testing, for example. That is a very broad question to ask. People can, of course, purchase pill testing kits on the internet. I personally would always advise people against that because I do not think that they are particularly therapeutically sound and they can give results that are not necessarily indicative of a range of harm, but perhaps other people have different views. I know that this has been a big issue over east, particularly in recent times when there have been some tragic deaths at large music festivals. What is the role and the use of a pill testing regime at large venues? Is it successful? Is it something that we should even be contemplating? Does it have the opposite effect? Does it, as some people claim, encourage additional risky illicit drug taking? I hope that if these are the sorts of things the committee chooses to look at that it would want to potentially contemplate those questions. Likewise, what is the role of sniffer dogs? Are sniffer dogs a valid part of trying to ensure that people are not engaging in harm or, in fact, are they contributing to more harm? The feedback I have had from the drug and alcohol sector is that those sorts of measures are not desirable. We do not have it in Western Australia. It would perhaps be useful for the committee to look at those sorts of issues and, across party lines, be able to give some recommendations to the Parliament.

Likewise, the issue of heroin is fraught. It is often said that heroin, as a pure drug, is a lot safer than current legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. But the reality is that people die from heroin overdoses, and get caught in cycles of addiction that bring with them lifestyles that are less than positive to their wellbeing. What is that line between wanting to address issues of illegality around heroin use and wanting to ensure that people who are caught in the grip of heroin addiction can get the sort of assistance they want? Certainly, I hope that anyone caught in the grip of an addiction who has managed to conquer it can successfully go on with their lives and rise above that addiction. I think there are questions to be asked about how that is best achieved.

I could not possibly in good conscience sit down without talking about the very real impact of methamphetamine and what is happening within our community due to its use. As someone who has paid very close attention to the issue of alcohol and other drugs and mental health issues for a couple of decades now, I have never seen anything quite as destructive as meth on individuals, families and communities. It is an insidious drug. I find it so distressing just how quickly it takes a hold on people’s lives, how addictive it is and how it fundamentally changes people. We will have to put some good, serious thought into grappling with this issue because what we are currently doing is clearly not having an effect. However, one of the things the proposed committee will need to look at is how bad the situation would be if we were not undertaking the sorts of measures we are undertaking now. We have to do things better than we are doing because it is a huge problem in our community. It is literally destroying people’s lives and we need to make sure that we can find solutions to not only support those who have found themselves in the grip of a meth addiction, but also, hopefully, stop people from taking up methamphetamine in the first place. It is very difficult, considering the profile of who is taking up methamphetamine. It is not people who are often stereotyped as people who have a drug addiction. We are talking about professionals who may take a little bit of meth to give themselves an edge, people working on mines, tradies and small business people. It is one of those drugs about which we have to start asking how we can potentially do things better.

These are the sorts of questions the committee will have to grapple with. Within a 12-month time frame, we will have to narrow them down. It is as simple as that. I am very curious to hear members’ contributions and, if they wish, they can share their perspectives on what they think might be a particularly interesting focus for the committee to take. We know that our current approach to reducing the harm illicit drugs cause our community is not working. We have a huge issue and the crisis is getting worse rather than better. We know that no government within Australia across the political spectrum can ever claim to have got this one right, so I am not interested in pointing the finger. It is a wicked problem that governments around the world have been trying to address. I strongly believe that we need to start treating drug addiction for what it is—effectively, a health and a mental health issue. I truly believe that is a critical part of what we need to look at. I do not believe that we currently have the balance right. I think we are using vital resources to punish individual users rather than focusing on illicit drug manufacturers and distributors, who I argue are the people who should be the focus of any sort of criminal investigation. In doing this we are also distracted from the opportunities to reduce the exposure of drug users to harm and, tragically, often avoidable deaths.

This is a really important issue for the Parliament to pay attention to. I am certain that I am not the only member in this place who is contacted by constituents concerned about a loved one who needs support but is unable to get support and constituents who are struggling to find out what they can possibly do to try to have their loved one’s issues addressed. On that note, I look forward to hearing members’ contributions and, if there is time, maybe to reply to the motion.


Debate adjourned, pursuant to standing orders.


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