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Despite taking seven weeks to reply to the Commissioner’s request for a six-month extended deadline for the NSW Government’s inquiry into the drug ‘Ice’ Premier Gladys Berejiklian has agreed to only half that time.

This is despite a two-page written request by Commissioner Dan Howard SC arguing that the original deadline of 28 October 2019 “allows insufficient time for the Commission to adequately address the many important matters raised by the terms of reference.”

Mr Howard contacted the Premier on 21 May seeking a new reporting date of on or before 30 April 2020, expressing his belief that the Commission’s report “has the potential to be a key resource for informing amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) policy in particular, and drug policy more generally, in NSW long into the future.”

NSW is currently embroiled in a heated drug policy debate, both on ’ice’ and the way that party-drug usage should be monitored and policed at music festivals. Overdoses and even deaths at recent festivals, along with allegedly heavy-handed policing, have alarmed and angered parents, drug experts, festival goers and authorities. At July’s Splendour festival in Byron Shire the issue received close attention, with observers at the drug testing tent including the mother of one young woman who died in Sydney, and the NSW Deputy Coroner.

At the time of the Commissioner’s writing his team was still engaged in a roadshow of country hearings, the last concluding in Broken Hill on 18 July. There, as in Lismore (14-15 May) and other centres, harrowing evidence was given by police, welfare workers, drug (and alcohol) treatment services and former ‘ice’ users themselves. If any consensus might have emerged it was that the ‘ice’ epidemic – and indeed the misuse of other illicit drugs and alcohol – should be regarded as a health issue rather than simply a legal one.

Various legal bodies have now weighed in. In a thoughtful submission the NSW Bar Association said criminalising personal drug use "may result in greater harm to the individual, and to society more broadly", than the harm caused by the use of illicit drugs:

Many people who use drugs are rational consumers insofar as they make a deliberate choice to take a drug or drugs to achieve a desired effect. Importantly, there are considerable harms associated with the criminalisation of personal drug use.

The legacy of involvement in the criminal justice system can be far-reaching and long-lasting. It can affect a person's ability to obtain and maintain employment, housing and education. Those who are incarcerated are exposed to more serious offenders.

Incarceration substantially increases the risk of mortality. The criminalisation of personal drug use affects personal wellbeing and relationships. Social stigma and the activities of law enforcement can also undermine the implementation of harm reduction measures.”

It added,

The current policy has not proved effective at minimising the harms associated with drug use. As the predominant tool, it may cause harm to personal drug users and to the community more generally.

Decriminalisation of personal acquisition, possession and use of illicit drugs would allow the implementation of a comprehensive public health approach. This would be complemented by the use of civil orders, the expansion of harm reduction measures and drug treatment services with the continuing application of criminal sanctions for drug suppliers, producers and traffickers.”

The Public Defenders Office voiced similar concerns, endorsing “the observations of the former law enforcement officials and agencies that “Australia cannot arrest its way out of the methamphetamine problem” and supporting the adoption of a suite of alternative, diversionary and harm minimisation approaches”. 

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions called for a specialist court [now operating in parts of Sydney and the Hunter] that takes referrals from some Local and District courts and tackles the issues underpinning drug dependency with tailored treatment and diversionary programs.

“While people in remote and very remote areas are 2.5 times as likely to use meth and amphetamines as those in major cities, the DPP noted that "many persons living in urban areas and almost all persons living in rural and regional areas of NSW are excluded" from the court's geographical reach.”

Legal Aid NSW said there was a "need for a cultural shift, greater community awareness and systemic decriminalisation so that drug usage can be addressed as a health issue rather than with the blunt instrument of the criminal justice system".

In a lengthy submission it said "the intervention of the criminal law is a significant barrier to access to treatment for many people… Defendants seeking treatment are frequently placed on unrealistic bail conditions to completely abstain from drug use, and being detected in possession or under the influence of drugs leads to frequent arrests and incarceration, which interrupts treatment."

In his letter seeking a six-month extension the Commissioner noted that from the submissions received from “many important stakeholders”, a key issue to inquire into is “the question of the removal of criminal sanctions for the ‘use’ and ‘possession’ of ATS and other drugs… an issue that requires great care and thoroughness of approach by this Commission, if it is to make appropriate recommendations on this important question affecting the Justice sector and NSW’s drug laws.”

Seven weeks later the Premier said she appreciated the important work of the Commission and acknowledged the “complexity of the matters before the inquiry.”

However, she was also “mindful of the importance of delivering outcomes for the people of New South Wales in a timely manner to combat the evolving threat of this dangerous drug.”

Ms Berejiklian agreed to extend the reporting timeframe only to 28 January 2020. Coming two after Australia Day, it is a document that may well have national resonance.

Commenting on the new timeframe to GP Speak, the State Member for Lismore Janelle Saffin said the Commissioner would have been overwhelmed with people and communities reaching out to tell their stories and seeking help.

“I have more people contacting me, saying they want to send their letters, their pleas for help to him. So many parents feel desperate with the onslaught of this Ice problem. Its impact is harsh on all.”

Noting that, “Police have saying we cannot arrest our way out of this problem for some time and they want new approaches,” Ms Saffin said. “We desperately need a Drug Court to sit in rural and regional areas, starting here locally. People should not be condemned because of their postcode.

“If you are an addict in Sydney you go to the Drug Court and get better treatment. You live in rural and regional NSW you get denied that service. We already miss out on so many services and do not get our promised share of the 30 per cent of Restart NSW funding. That could be fixed now.”

She said, “Given there has been a Commonwealth Inquiry that did not seem to bring any discernible action [reported in GP Speak Winter 2019], a NSW Legislative Council Inquiry into rehabilitation services in regional and rural health that told us what we know: none or negligible rehabilitation services with long waiting times for rehab services, and parents and people addicted crying out for help, we need action for more services. That could be fixed now.”

However, Ms Saffin felt, “It is understandable that the Premier has given the Commissioner more time but not the six months he sought. The sooner he reports the better. It will arm her with the evidence.

“I look forward to working in a collaborative way so that we no longer bury our heads in the sand and continue to respond only that “drugs are bad”. That needs to be fixed and hopefully the Commissioner will lay out the evidence for the Premier and her Cabinet that gives them the courage to make the changes.”

Ms Saffin said there is a growing consensus across the board to decriminalise personal use of drugs. “Even Alan Jones is saying that “anything we have tried to date has failed”, she said.

While all of society, not only the Premier, might want a quick fix to the inordinate challenge of ‘ice’ - as the USA yearns for on the opiates plague - there is slight chance this will occur, but having more facts about why so many people take such a drug and how they might be helped can only be beneficial.