Listening to the police and the ACT government, a person could be forgiven for thinking the looming decriminalisation of some drug possession will only lead to one of two possible outcomes.
The ACT could become a haven for “drug tourism”, with police grappling with increases in drug-driving deaths and violence among organised criminals.
Or it becomes a beacon for Australia’s harm reduction future, where drug dependence is not stigmatised, overdoses are less common and the justice system no longer sags under the weight of people who should never have become ensnared.
Ahead of 28 October, when laws come into effect that will allow people to possess small amounts of drugs including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine for personal use, Chris Gough is saddened the first outcome – suggested by the ACT’s chief police officer, Neil Gaughan – has even been put forward.
Gough, the chief executive of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy, has overcome his own dependence to heroin, and works every day with others coping with similar issues.
He has also worked closely with Gaughan and the Australian federal police, and says the reality of the reforms is likely to be significantly more complex than has been suggested.
“Obviously there are harms associated with drug use, but we also realise there’s harms associated just with the criminalisation of drugs,” Gough says.
“It’s just not accurate to say we’re going to lose control of the situation.
“It was personally very disappointing, but I don’t want to attack Neil in the media, I have to work with him, and he’s been really supportive of us.”
‘We just don’t know what is going to happen’
It is the first time an Australian jurisdiction has decriminalised the possession of these drugs.
Ahead of the change, Gaughan told News Corp this week that it would be “naive not to think people won’t come down, even for a weekend, to get on the coke and not worry about the cops … it’s a reality we can’t ignore.”
He also outlined the possibility that methamphetamine use could result in an increase in the road toll, and that violence could increase between organised criminals, including bikie gangs, in a bid to capture a share of an expanding drug market.
But he also acknowledged that, “to be honest, we just don’t know what is going to happen”.
The ACT health minister, Rachel Stephen-Smith, said in a statement to Guardian Australia that Gaughan himself had acknowledged the need to treat drug use as a health issue, rather than as a criminal one.
In March, Gaughan had said on ABC Canberra: “Treating addiction as a health issue is a significant change to where we have been.
“The law enforcement focus needs to be on those that are actually dealing with the drugs.”
How the laws will apply
Under the new laws, anyone found with an amount of drugs that falls within the threshold would be fined, but not charged with a criminal offence.
Stephen-Smith said: “The government is committed to continuing to focus on disrupting drug-trafficking and reducing supply of drugs through the justice system.”
Police and the ACT government are still working through important details only weeks out from the change.
This includes the information about support services that will be on notices handed to those found in possession of drugs, and the training to be provided to ACT police about the new laws.
The government has not started a review of laws that came into effect in early 2020 that decriminalised the personal possession of cannabis.
Gaughan said these laws resulted in a 20% increase in use, a claim which police said was based on the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s wastewater treatment data.
But while those figures show that cannabis use did increase in Canberra at this time, it also increased in other capital cities too.
The police’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the laws outlined the number of people who could be diverted from the criminal justice system under the reforms.
In the five years to 2020, there had been more than 5,500 seizures of drugs that would have fallen below the threshold under the new laws, according to the submission.
More than half of those were for cannabis, with methamphetamine and cocaine making up most of the remaining seizures.
Anita Mills, the chief executive of the Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT, says it will be important to monitor whether the reforms actually result in more people receiving drug treatment.
She says the association has provided advice to the government about how to evaluate the success of decriminalisation.
“Once personal possession of the specified drugs is decriminalised, ongoing monitoring and evaluation will be critical to develop an evidence base to ensure reforms are having the intended impact of reducing harm”
The experience overseas
In February, Gaughan and a delegation of other government and health officials from the ACT travelled to Vancouver, San Francisco and Portland to see how decriminalisation worked in these jurisdictions.
While Portugal is considered a success for its drug reforms, the experience has been mixed in North America. Gaughan made it sound hellish.
“I saw in the states people smoking crack in the streets and the cops are turning a blind eye to that usage,” he said, in an article that did not specifically state that public drug use in the ACT would remain illegal.
“Cops are walking around giving people a nudge to make sure they are not dead.
“A city like San Francisco has entire blocks that are literally no go zones. Whole neighbourhoods are boarded up with people walking around zombified.”
When pressed on the basis for Gaughan’s comments about how the reforms could impact the territory, ACT policing said the claims were based on “police intelligence and observations of other cities where decriminalisation or legalisation has been implemented”.
But Gough and others within the sector say it is impossible to compare North America, which is grappling with unprecedented levels of opioid-related deaths predominantly linked to fentanyl, with the ACT.
Governments in North America are simply trying everything in a desperate bid to overturn a catastrophe, sometimes without increasing funding for support services, Gough says he was told by others on the trip.
They also told him that where decriminalisation was working, it was because of the strong relationship support services – like his – had with police.
“This is why our relationship is so important, because what I’ve heard is working in America … was that where there were good relationships between police and support services … there’s been enormous steps forward,” Gough says.
“Where it hasn’t worked so well is where there hasn’t been that connection.”