On Monday when 150 of us were gathered together to remember the 20,000 plus avoidable drug-related deaths since the first remembrance ceremony 25 years ago in 1996, an altogether different dialogue was taking place in Parliament House.
There, the AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw was telling his audience that the proposal before the ACT Assembly to decriminalise small amounts of some illicit drugs would mean that "organised crime will want to target this community because they can move their product quite easily".
Our gathering saw the world very differently. The very policy changes we welcomed, the AFP Commissioner prophesied would bring rack and ruin. The public health and treatment-focused approach, such as Liberal chief minister Kate Carnell had advocated, would have saved the life of the loved ones whom we gathered to remember.
Where does the truth lie?
If the Commissioner is so bent upon protecting the ACT community from drugs, how does he explain the booming state of the Australian illicit drug market as revealed in the Illicit Drug Data report published earlier this month - a 28 per cent increase in border detections of methamphetamines; a 1961 per cent increase in MDMA; and a 447 per cent increase in cocaine in the decade to 2019-20?
Market indicators tell us a lot about the state of the illicit market. These are indicators like price, purity and availability.
If Kershaw and his mob were effective, prices should be rising, purity declining and availability becoming more difficult.
Instead they have the hide to proclaim victory on the basis of statistics that prove their failure. To add insult to injury the AFP, through its Drug Harm Index, uses the level of their seizures as the basis for the benefit they claim they provide to the Australian community.
The index puts a cost of harm on every unit of drugs seized, claiming that to be a measure of the harm the AFP has protected the community from. Instead it is a measure of the failure of their efforts. Farmers know they are getting on top of their rabbit problem if their catchers are netting fewer and fewer rabbits. That, however, is not a good return for the catchers if they are paid on the basis of the number of rabbits they catch.
If the words of the AFP are to be lamented, so much more is the shameless willingness of our own senator, Zed Sesleja, to play political games with this life-and-death issue. Ah yes, he is absolutely right that Kershaw's warning was "incredibly distressing" for parents. There is a more effective way to reduce drug supply which has nothing to do with well-intentioned law enforcement effort.
A Californian study of cocaine compared the relative effectiveness of treatment with various forms of law enforcement in achieving a reduction in the number of users, the quantity of the drug consumed and the societal costs of crime and lost productivity that arise from use of the drug.
The study estimated that "the costs of crime and lost productivity are reduced by $7.46 for every dollar spent on treatment". This was four times more efficient than domestic drug law enforcement - the most effective form of drug law enforcement. Heroin assisted treatment in Switzerland produced a reduction in drug trafficking and drug use and possession offences of between 54 and 85 per cent. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction described as "consistent findings" of the Swiss and other trials a "major disengagement from criminal activities (such as acquisitive crime to fund continued use of 'street' heroin and other street drugs)".
Portugal, too, with its decriminalisation has experienced a decline in "recent and current drug use ... among those aged 15-24, the population who were most at risk of initiation and long-term engagement". Treatment clearly reduces demand and with it the incentive to supply. The funding devoted to drug law enforcement in the ACT needs to be reinvested in treatment and support services.
Monday's remembrance ceremony bore witness to the stigma and marginalisation inflicted by our present drug laws. More than any other social policy they undermine the ACT's commitment to "promote respect for human rights, foster a safe and cohesive community, and champion equity of opportunity, access and participation".
The law that Mr Kershaw wants to maintain is a driver of "stigma and discrimination [that] is directed at both those people with mental illness and those who support them". In the words of the Productivity Commission these are among the "key factors driving poor outcomes in Australia's mental health system".
The AFP and Commonwealth politicians would do well to keep their nose out of matters within the remit of our ACT-elected government.
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