ACT Corrections and Justice Health Minister Shane Rattenbury has labelled the increasing number of people in Australian prisons "a national disgrace", created in part by the treatment of drug use as a justice issue rather than a health one.
He also said he would like to see the use of illicit drugs other than cannabis decriminalised.
Mr Rattenbury spoke on Thursday night at the Canberra launch of investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein's new book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs. Mr Loewenstein believes illicit drugs should be legalised, allowing governments to save money on law enforcement and raise money for health and education programs by taxing drug sales.
Mr Rattenbury told the audience at the Shine Dome he was "deeply frustrated" by the soaring number of people being locked up across the country.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average number of people in custody increased 52 per cent between the June 2009 quarter and the June 2019 quarter, when there was an average 43,306 people locked up daily. This was despite Australia's resident adult population only growing by 19 per cent.
Mr Rattenbury said there were 452 detainees in Canberra's Alexander Maconochie Centre, with 20 of them there because of a principal offence involving drugs. A further 22 were convicted on a secondary offence related to drugs.
This struck the ACT Greens leader as "surprisingly low", but he said drug use was often the underlying cause behind other types of offending. Two-thirds of new prison entrants in Australia last year said they had used illicit drugs in the year before being incarcerated.
"I've been a minister for corrections for seven years, and in that time, thousands and thousands more people in Australia have ended up in jail," Mr Rattenbury said.
"When I first came into the portfolio, NSW had about 8000 people in custody. They now have 13,000.
"This is a national disgrace on a whole lot of levels, aside from the fact that it costs us a fortune and it has a terrible social toll.
"So much of this, I think, is around drug policy, but also mental health policy, and the two often cross over."
Mr Rattenbury said even though the legalisation of cannabis was being debated in the ACT Legislative Assembly, the territory's politicians had to grapple with the question of, 'How far can we get?' because of federal constraints.
"What we are doing currently does not work, is not working and is doing our community an enormous disservice, so we must go forward believing that we can do better," he said.
Speaking to the Sunday Canberra Times after his speech, Mr Rattenbury said Australia spending two-thirds of its drug policy money on law enforcement meant people were left crying out for more treatment options.
"We've got our priorities all wrong," he said.
Asked whether he shared Mr Loewenstein's view that illicit drugs should be legalised, Mr Rattenbury said he thought the "first and obvious step" was decriminalisation.
"I think the first step is to actually take the criminal element out of it and treat drug policy as a health issue, not a justice issue," he said.
Asked whether he would like to see the use of illicit drugs other than cannabis decriminalised, Mr Rattenbury said yes.
"I think we need to think carefully through each of the drugs, but broadly, that's my view," he said.
Thursday's launch event included a panel discussion featuring Mr Loewenstein, social scientist Anna Olsen, law professor Desmond Manderson and emergency medicine specialist David Caldicott.
All spoke of the toll taken by the global war on drugs and the need for law reform to address it.
In one example, Dr Caldicott praised Portugal for decriminalising all drugs in 2001 and redirecting law enforcement funding to treatment measures as the country grappled with soaring rates of drug use and HIV infection.
"As a consequence [of decriminalisation], there's not a country in the world that has fewer drug-related deaths per capita," Dr Caldicott said.
"The HIV rate has plummeted. People who are in social strife because of their drug use are rehabilitated in society."
Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform president Bill Bush, who attended the event, said he was thrilled to hear Mr Rattenbury and experts say the current approach in Australia was not working.
"We've been saying this for 20 or 25 years," Mr Bush said.
He said the current approach was particularly harmful for young people and that "getting criminal law off the back of people who use drugs, however you do it", was the way forward.