Former judge Richard Refshauge says criminal sanctions do more harm than good. (ABC News: Niki Burnside)
The criminalisation of illicit drugs is causing more harm than good, a prominent former judge has said, calling for criminal offences relating to personal drug possession to be abolished.
- A new paper is calling on Australian governments to decriminalise personal drug use
- Former judge Richard Refshauge backs the calls, saying the move will reduce harm
- The ACT Government says it has no plans to change current drug laws
Retired ACT Supreme Court Justice Richard Refshauge is the patron of Directions Health Services that has produced a position paper on the matter.
“We know that in certain cases it’s clear that penalties can reduce illegal behaviour,” he said.
“In the case of drugs the evidence is all the other way. Putting people who use small amounts of drugs occasionally into the criminal justice system actually piles prejudice, upon prejudice, upon prejudice.”
The paper argued the way in which drug use and drug dependence was viewed in Australia needed to shift away from a criminal approach to a health-first approach.
It said civil or administrative sanctions, such as a fine or other conditions, may still be imposed, and any illicit drugs found by police confiscated.
But the person would not have a criminal record for personal use or possession of small quantities of illegal substances, which would improve their ability to gain employment or participate in other community activities.
The manufacturing and sale of illicit substances would remain a criminal offence.
“One of the things that you want with people having difficulties in their lives is you want to give them a job, to get them out in the community, to get them interacting with people who will actually be able to lead them to healthy, successful, useful lives,” Mr Refshauge said.
“So what do we do? We put them away, we get them out of society, we lock them up with people who have done very bad things.
“Inevitably what you do is by criminalising these people you actually reduce their capacity to try to manage the harm that the drug’s doing.”
No plans to change laws, government says
The paper argued decriminalisation, not legalisation, was the best approach.
“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have people prevented, prohibited and penalised for getting behind the wheel of the car when they’ve got drugs in their system,” Mr Refshauge said.
“In the same way as the fact that it’s legal to drink alcohol doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing to get drunk and get behind the wheel of a car. Those kind of things still should be illegal.”
Mr Refshauge said the idea was not new, and now that he was retired as a judge he could pursue the matter.
“Twenty years ago, the directors of public prosecutions of Australia … put out a paper calling for decriminalisation of personal use,” he said.
“I was one of the those DPPs.”
The paper cited the success a similar policy had had since it was introduce in Portugal in 2001.
Debate around drug laws has been topical in the ACT this year.
In September, the ACT Government passed laws to legalise personal cannabis use.
Matt Noffs from the Ted Noffs Foundation said the time was right for jurisdictions to look at changing drug laws.
“We know that criminalisation doesn’t work, there’s enough evidence globally to show that,” he said.
“But if that question isn’t answered how will we decriminalise, how will we legalise, then we do face challenges.
“I think it’s really important to slow that process down, to realise there are complexities, and to create a round table to really understand those complexities and iron those out before implementation.”
A spokesman for the ACT Government said it had no plans to expand decriminalisation to other illicit substances.
“The ACT Government supports a harm minimisation approach to illicit drugs as outlined in the ACT Drug Strategy Action Plan 2018-2021,” he said.
“This has been demonstrated by further decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis and Government support for pill testing at music festivals.”
A new drug-and-alcohol court also begins operating in the ACT on Tuesday, allowing courts to issue treatment orders to substance-dependent offenders.