Lawyers Backed in Battle to End War on Drugs

5 April, 2012 | Lawyers Weekly

 Lawyers backed in battle to end war on drugsCriminal lawyers who have long been calling for an end to the criminalisation of drugs have been backed by a group of eminent Australians.

The Australia21 group, which includes Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr and former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery QC, released a report titled The Prohibition of Illicit Drugs is Killing and Criminalising our Children and We Are Letting It Happen on 3 April, calling for an end to the 40-year war on drugs.

“By making the supply and use of certain drugs criminal acts, governments everywhere have driven their production and consumption underground and have fostered the development of a criminal industry that is corrupting civil society and governments and killing our children,” the report states.

The report also asserts that problems associated with drug use should be dealt with by health and social systems, with only the peripheral involvement of the criminal law.

“Over more than 40 years in criminal legal practice, I have seen the impotence of the criminal law in an area for which it is not suited,” said Cowdery.

“It is time to reform the laws to enable drugs to be dealt with by other mechanisms, although doubtless a small number of bootleggers would still need to be prosecuted.”

Bill Potts, the director of Queensland’s biggest criminal defence law firm, Potts Lawyers, agrees.

“Those of us who witness day-to-day the tragic stories of those who have been caught up in drug abuse are frustrated by the futility of the current policy setting,” said Potts.

“Several years ago the possession of needles was decriminalised as a health and safety measure. We now need to have that principle extended to the possession of drugs themselves.

“Using jail as a means of controlling drug addiction is self-defeating. Prisons are awash with illicit drugs.”

The Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA), which last year became the first legal organisation in Australia to call for a national conversation on drug policy, including potential legalisation, also welcomed the Australia21 report.

National president of the ALA, Greg Barns, said it was a significant development in the move to end the reliance of policy makers on the criminal justice system to deal with the issue of selling, possession and use of drugs.

“Every day in our courts, magistrates and judges are forced to use tired and irrelevant rhetoric about the evils of illicit drugs when they, along with everyone else in the courtroom, know that laws in this area are a monumental failure,” said Barns.

“It is time that all Australian legislatures heed the growing calls and rip-up existing drugs laws and replace them with health-based regimes like those that have existed in Portugal for more than a decade.”

Expert reform group launches

Over a decade ago, Portugal decriminalised the possession of small quantities of all illicit drugs. The results showed health and social benefits and a reduced burden on the criminal justice system.

University of New South Wales (UNSW) criminology professor and member of the newly-formed Australian Drug Law Reform Initiative, Julie Stubbs, said it is now time to consider whether a similar approach should be taken in Australia.

Stubbs is one of 20 multidisciplinary experts from the UNSW and overseas who say the current approach to illicit drugs has comprehensively failed. These experts have come together to form an initiative to encourage public debate and drug law reform.

“We need to discuss generally and openly the best way forward and engage politicians in the process. UNSW’s [initiative] provides the forum for that to occur in an informed way,” said Cowdery.

  • International partner in the UNSW Initiative, professor Ernest Drucker from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said momentum for drug law reform was building around the world, especially in Latin America.
  • “As an American public health and drug treatment professional, I have seen the harms that both drug addiction and errant drug-criminalisation policies can cause. The drug law reform efforts now underway in Australia and other nations mark a hopeful change; a new milestone in our struggle to put drug issues where they belong – in healthcare, effective exercise of social responsibility, and defence of human rights – not as a criminal matter,” he said.