Australia needs urgent and serious drug law reform in the wake of failing approaches, according to a new Senate report on crystal methamphetamine tabled by Tasmanian Labor Senator Lisa Singh.
The report, three years in the making through a joint parliamentary committee, urged the federal government to re-define drugs as a health and social issue rather than a law enforcement issue.
Australia’s regional and rural communities are worst affected by the lack of resources for drug rehabilitation and education, the report warned.
A submission made to the inquiry by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Council of Tasmania noted regional Tasmanians were facing particularly long waiting lists to access treatment services, with the North-West the worst affected.
Data shows there were 32,000 requests per year for Australia’s 1500 residential rehabilitation beds, with waiting lists of up to six months.
“We cannot arrest our way out of issues with drug dependency – the government needs to invest in early intervention, treatment and rehabilitation if anything is going to change,” Senator Singh said.
“This report quite consciously focuses on the importance of rehabilitation and treatment services – on addressing the cause, rather than just the symptoms.”
Last year Senator Singh and fellow Tasmanian Liberal Senator David Bushby travelled to Portugal, along with then-Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore and Liberal MP Craig Kelly, to study the country’s radical approach to drug management.
The trip was part of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement’s investigation into Australia’s drug laws, which produced the final report tabled by Senator Singh on Wednesday.
Both Senator Singh and Senator Bushby returned from the trip in agreement that there were elements of Portugal’s focus on offering support and rehabilitation to drug users, rather than jail time, that could be relevant to Australia.
At the time, Senator Bushby noted that Portugal had three drug-related deaths per million, per year, while Australia had 70.
The final report recommended the federal government request the Productivity Commission to launch an inquiry into the effectiveness of the National Drug Strategy, and urged all governments to invest in early intervention and treatment.
A further recommendation was that the federal government stop using “punitive messages” about drug use, instead focusing on compassion and supportive information to encourage users to find treatment.
The report offered a total 15 recommendations to reform Australia’s drug approach, both at a federal and state level.