Politics

NSW government refuses to decriminalise low-level use of illicit drugs in response to ice inquiry

The NSW government has refused to decriminalise low-level use of illicit drugs as recommended by an inquiry into ice which handed down its findings more than two years ago. 

Premier Dominic Perrottet said the government had accepted 86 and noted 14 of the 109 recommendations provided by the inquiry and announced a $500 million investment in health and justice reforms.  

The $11 million inquiry, led by Commissioner Dan Howard, recommended if someone is found with small quantities of drugs for personal use they should be directed to health services rather than the justice system. 

The inquiry concluded the “war on drugs” was an outdated mindset and criminalising use and possession stigmatised people.  

But Mr Perrottet said decriminalisation sent the wrong message to society and illicit drugs need to remain illegal. 

“I disagree with decriminalisation,” he said. 

“You need to make sure you have preventive measures in place to continue send clear messages to the public that drugs can ruin you and your family’s life.”

Two bags of crystal methamphetamine hydrochloride or 'ice', seized by police.
An ice inquiry handed down its findings more than two years ago.(Supplied)

 
The government has, however, supported, in principle, a diversion scheme which would allow people to avoid paying two infringement notices for drug possession if they undergo a health program. 

If they receive a third infringement notice, they must attend court. 

The Premier said more advice was needed from the Chief Health Officer and Police Commissioner before the scheme was rolled out, though and there’s no time frame on when it will be introduced. 

Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the diversion scheme was not the same as decriminalisation. 

“[The scheme] sends a message that drugs shouldn’t be normalised, decriminalisation doesn’t do that,” he said. 

“On one hand we are trying to send that very clear anti-drugs message but on the other hand making sure if people are going to be in the criminal justice system, we have exhausted other possibilities…” 

Mr Speakman said it hadn’t been determined what drugs would and wouldn’t be included in the scheme. 

a man speaking into microphones at a press conference
Mr Speakman had previously said he was frustrated by the delay in responding to the inquiry. (AAP: Bianca De Marchi )

The government says its $500 million investment in health and justice, rolled out over four years, is the biggest investment in alcohol and drug services in NSW history.

More than $141 million will be used to expand justice initiatives including the Sydney drug court, which will go from running one day a week to five.

Additionally, more than $350 million will be dedicated to health outcomes like expanding drug withdrawal programs across the state.

The court diversion scheme, called Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment Program, will be expanded from 62 to 91 courts, and circle sentencing (for Indigenous offenders) will expand from 12 to 20 courts. 

Chief health officer Kerry Chant said the extra money would provide “significant enhancements” to local health districts so there could be stronger evidence-based treatments and more coordinated approaches to care. 

“This will be a sizeable challenge, but we’re up for it.” 

Greens MP and drug law reform spokesperson, Cate Faehrmann, said the government was “cowardly” for not launching the diversion program ahead of the March 2023 election. 

“The government and the parliament could look very different after the election,” she said.

“The Premier must know that he’s putting any pre-court diversion program at risk by kicking the can down the road until after the election.” 

The Kings Cross injecting room
Recommendations to expand the Kings Cross injecting room were also rejected.(ABC News: Philippa McDonald)

The special commission of inquiry, which was commissioned by former premier Gladys Berejiklian in 2018, found NSW has a “serious and complex” problem with ice and MDMA.

It also found drug and alcohol policy in NSW had “stagnated considerably” since 2006. 

The report was delivered in January 2020 and the government has faced criticism about the time taken to respond, with Mr Speakman recently admitting he was “disappointed” it had taken so long. 
 
The issue of decriminalisation was a sticking point in cabinet, with some conservative members opposing the idea, which delayed the government’s response. 

But on Wednesday, Mr Perrottet defended the delay. 

“I do not step away from the fact that the government, on such a sensitive and complex issue, has to take the time to get it right and that’s exactly what we have done.” 

The government previously rejected recommendations to introduce pill testing and expanding the medically supervised injecting centre in Sydney’s Kings Cross. 

Not-for-profit Uniting, which runs the injecting centre, says it’s not good enough that the diversion program is only supported in principle and the “two strike” system will exclude people with more serious drug dependencies. 

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