Select Committee into Alternate Approaches to Reducing Illicit Drug Use and its Effects on the Community — Final Report —
“Help, Not Handcuffs: Evidence-Based Approaches to Reducing Harm from Illicit Drug Use” — Motion
Resumed from 16 September on the following motion moved by Hon Alison Xamon —
That the report be noted.
Hon ALISON XAMON: Last week, my remarks were interrupted because we ran out of time. I was in the process of reading out a letter from the Western Australian Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies—WANADA— in response to the report. I will continue reading the letter. It states —
Ensuring the quality of private alcohol and other drug services (recommendation 45)
Insufficient Government investment in alcohol and other drug services has enabled an increase in services that are not government funded and do not have accountability requirements. They often do not deliver evidence-based quality practice (including consumer rights).
Western Australia has a long history of establishing the quality of government funded alcohol and other drug services, driven by the sector since 1984. It is WANADA’s understanding that the National Quality Framework, as a COAG initiative, was motivated by the need to ensure service quality, irrespective of whether the service was funded by government or not. The National Quality Framework states “drug and alcohol treatment regulation is primarily the responsibility of state and territory governments”. WANADA believes regulation of alcohol and other drug treatment services that are not funded by government would enhance safety and community confidence in the sector as a whole.
The State Government has demonstrated strong leadership during its term in office. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been decisive, considered and informed by evidence and expert advice. Similarly, in 2017 the State Government demonstrated significant leadership in driving the implementation of therapeutic communities in Wandoo and Casuarina prisons and commissioning the Methamphetamine Action Plan Taskforce—the recommendations of which are largely being implemented.
With less than five years until the end of the Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015–2025, the system’s capacity to meet projected demand for specialist alcohol and other drug services does not look promising. Of particular note, alcohol and other drug harm reduction and personal support services in 2017 represented only 2.5% of the 2025 optimal service levels.
The CHAIR: Hon Alison Xamon.
Hon ALISON XAMON: It continues —
The achievement of optimal service capacity is further hindered by operative funding cuts resulting from inadequate ERO and indexation from the State and Commonwealth funders.
Without evidenced reforms, service demands and negative impacts across the health and human service system are only likely to increase. While the service sector predominantly provides a treatment focus, it is strongly supportive of practical and evidenced reform that prevents and reduces population level harms. WANADA acknowledges the complexity of alcohol and other drug issues, especially as they intersect with population health including: ‘closing the gap’ considerations; blood-borne viruses; sexual health and gender equity; alcohol supply restriction initiatives preventing future service demands; general social disadvantage; and the need for community development.
The breadth of the complexities associated with alcohol and other drug use provides a challenge to the policy and service sector. WANADA believes the Inquiry Report provides an alternative lens to address such complexities and achieve better outcomes for the Western Australian community.
I look forward to discussing WANADA’s position with you and drawing on the combined expertise of the sector to continue to build more effective responses to alcohol and other drug problems.
That letter, which I tabled in this place last week, is dated 10 July, but this is the first opportunity that I have had to bring it to the chamber’s attention.
The Western Australian Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies is the peak body for community-managed alcohol and other drug services within this state. It is also in a position to represent the views of those with lived experience, such as families and drug users, as well as service providers. I remind members that the most significant takeaway from its response is that it views the government’s response to the important report, “Help, Not Handcuffs: Evidence-Based Approaches to Reducing Harm from Illicit Drug Use” as being a lost opportunity. I think that is exactly what it has been. I do not know whether I will get another chance to speak on this report again in the closing weeks of the fortieth Parliament. The number of committee reports on the notice paper indicate that that is very unlikely. However, I remind members that when the Legislative Council established the Select Committee into Alternate Approaches to Reducing Illicit Drug Use and its Effects on the Community, it was done unanimously. There was consensus across all parties to establish that committee. I note the very positive and affirming comments that were made by all members who contributed about the need to look at how we handle the issue of illicit drug use and to find a better way to address it. We recognise that illicit drugs cause harm in our community for people who are caught up in the cycle of drug addiction, and for those families that are affected by a loved one’s drug addiction. The offending behaviours that often arise when people are caught up in the cycle of drug addiction have a huge impact on the community. It is a wicked issue.
This committee, effectively, performed the role that was identified in the methamphetamine action plan to look specifically at whether there was a better legal framework to address the issue of illicit drug use. The committee spent 13 months looking at all the evidence across the world and the country. It spoke to all the experts in this field and came up with the recommendations in this report that map out how illicit drug use and the harms arising from that use can be addressed in a better way. What a shame it is that when the government was presented with this cross-party consensus, it could not seize the opportunity to look at serious reform in this space, which had been alluded to in the Methamphetamine Action Plan Taskforce report. The issue is that we will continue with the status quo, continue to watch people’s lives decline and continue to watch harm being perpetrated on the community.
Regardless of whether members approve of it, people who engage in recreational drug use are ending up with criminal records, but there is no reason for that to happen. I am speaking specifically about the use of marijuana. The committee found that there is a strong case to be made for removing criminal penalties for the use of marijuana. Members should bear in mind that the harms that arise from marijuana are no greater than those that arise from alcohol. However, alcohol is a legal drug and, in fact, has been found to be the cause of most drug-related harm in our community. Why is it that somebody can enjoy a couple of glasses of chardonnay on a Friday night and that is perfectly legal, but people who use marijuana end up with a criminal record? That does not make sense from a public health perspective.
Marijuana is only one of the drugs that we looked at. We looked at all the drugs that can potentially cause harm. One thing we found, particularly with methamphetamine and heroin use, is that the current regime of criminal penalties is not helping stop people from taking those drugs. In fact, it can draw them into a cycle of illicit use that aggravates the problem for them and the community. It often serves to be a very real barrier to people getting help. If someone is caught in a cycle of drug addiction, the one thing that we should want is for them to be able to get help. We found that the current system stands in the way of that and prevents it.
I am very sad that the government chose not to show any courage on this issue or to take advantage of the opportunity presented to it. Those who work in the alcohol and other drugs sector also share that concern. This report will have a life beyond the fortieth Parliament and can serve as a reference point as we move forward. Many people will be seeking to draw that out and talk about the need for reform in this space. I know that I am on the right side of history on this one. Ultimately, we will have to take a different approach to dealing with illicit drug use. The question is: how many people need to lose their lives or have their lives unnecessarily ruined before a government decides to show some courage, follows the public health evidence, and looks at serious reform in this space? It is clearly not happening under this government. Let us hope that a future government shows a lot more courage.
Comments and speeches by various members
Hon ALISON XAMON: I want to make some comments about the issue of marijuana because I think it is very easy to misunderstand the committee’s recommendations around it. It is important to be very clear. It became abundantly clear to the committee that there is a profound misunderstanding about the models of legalisation and decriminalisation. Legalisation often includes the regulation of substances, similar to what we have for alcohol and tobacco. Decriminalisation is not that. Decriminalisation simply means that if people are using a substance, they are not going to be found criminally liable for using it. I want to remind members that the report was unequivocal in recommending that currently illegal drugs need to remain illegal substances and there was no suggestion that penalties should change for people who are trafficking or manufacturing illicit drugs. The suggestion was that illegal substances should remain illegal and that illegal, black market industries should still be illegal. However, there had to be a recognition that many Australians partake of marijuana in particular. The question that arises from that is whether those people should end up with a criminal record for taking marijuana. A number of findings in the report pertain to the use of marijuana.
The CHAIR: Order, members! Can we have a little less side discussion going on in the chamber? I am listening to Hon Alison Xamon.
Hon ALISON XAMON: Thank you, Mr Chair.
Findings 50 to 58 pertain to the use of marijuana. We found that community attitudes to marijuana had changed quite significantly. We recognised that cannabis may impair the ability to operate machinery or a motor vehicle and may result in adverse long-term health effects, as alcohol can. We also recognised that the potency of marijuana has increased considerably. Although our baby boomer parents—not my parents, because my father was a minister!— may have partaken of a puff of a little bit of leaf in the 1960s, we recognise that the potency of marijuana has increased quite significantly, often as a result of being professionally grown for the black market. As a result, regular cannabis use may increase the likelihood of psychotic symptoms or worsen symptoms in people who are predisposed to or are experiencing psychotic mental illnesses. We recognise that using marijuana is not without risk, just as alcohol is not without risk. I understand that that will raise the ire of a number of people who lobbied us and told us that marijuana is completely harmless. In fact, I was told that marijuana is able to cure a whole range of things. I am sorry, but that was not where the evidence led us. However, we heard evidence that marijuana serves as self-medicated pain management for a number of people and some people have found that the use of marijuana has been quite beneficial. Of course, that is an argument to make sure that it is easier to get prescription marijuana. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that it serves an important health function, more than recreationally, for some people. The committee looked at jurisdictions that had gone down the legalisation path, because that is often promoted, and found that increased harm followed, such as increases in traffic deaths and cannabis-related emergency department visits. The committee also found that it did not entirely stop black market activity. However, ultimately, the committee found that insufficient and often conflicting evidence was not available from other countries to support the idea of a commercial model of cannabis legalisation. I want to be really clear: that does not mean that the evidence said that we should not do it; I am saying that the committee could not find clear and conclusive evidence that this would be a logical path to pursue.
The committee also looked at what has happened in Australia and found that South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have a model of cannabis decriminalisation very similar to what we used to have in Western Australia, which was introduced by Hon Jim McGinty when he was Attorney General. Western Australia has moved away from decriminalisation. Western Australia had a scheme and that was changed. All this came out in recommendation 21, which states —
A health-based response to the use and possession of drugs makes provision for the cultivation of cannabis for personal use.
I want to be clear that it does not say anything about legalisation. In fact, members need to read the findings, because the findings make it clear that the committee could not find definitive evidence that the legalisation model was either a good or a particularly bad thing. But the committee did find that a model similar to what had been in place in Western Australia, which had the desired effect of ensuring that people who smoked marijuana and grew it for either recreational purposes, which people do, or their own medical reasons did not end up in the criminal justice system. The committee’s recommendation was that we treat it as a health-based issue.
If members still think that marijuana is, effectively, a dangerous drug, we can have all sorts of public health campaigns and initiatives to draw people’s attention to concerns around it, in the same way that we do now for alcohol and cigarettes, both of which are legal drugs. That will not prevent us from engaging in early intervention and prevention programs if we still think that people taking marijuana is not a desirable social outcome, but it will acknowledge that it is pointless to just give people a criminal record for taking that drug. It also must be noted that the committee found that quite a number of people are able to partake of marijuana on a casual or even on a regular basis without any ill effects. It is not the case that it will always result in harm for people. It is important to be very careful about the language that we use, because when people talk about legalisation in the same breath as decriminalisation, they show that they really do not understand the way that the system works.
Portugal has not legalised any drugs. Portugal still works within what is effectively a decriminalisation model, but it has an administrative penalty rather than a criminal penalty. That is the model that Portugal has adopted. That sends the social message to people that this is still not necessarily something that the community agrees with, but it ensures that people do not end up with a criminal record around their neck.
This has already happened in other states and we had it in Western Australia before under an ALP government. It would have been so easy for the government to have said, “Yes. Let’s use this recommendation and reintroduce what we as a Labor Party introduced all those years ago, recognising that the ALP platform supports it.” It could have proceeded to do that. I know after talking to people in this chamber that, frankly, we had the numbers to pass such a regime, so I do not want to hear the argument that it never would get past the Council, because it would. The government chose to not avail itself of that. Instead, people will be caught up in the criminal justice system for partaking of a drug that in many instances does not harm them or other people. I am not suggesting that harm is never there, but alcohol causes harm and we have that within a legal framework. That is the thing. Let us not criminalise people for these sorts of behaviours.
The CHAIR: Noting the time, I will leave the chair until the ringing of the bells.
Committee interrupted, pursuant to standing orders.