On 5 June more than 700 people braved the rain and cold to line the pews in the historic St Stephens Uniting Church in central Sydney. In some ways they were an unlikely gathering, made up of Uniting Church members (many of them older), people from the public health and drug law reform fields, ex-politicians, recreational drug users (many of them younger), families of those whose lives have been harmed by illicit drugs and many other interested citizens.
They came together for two main reasons, the shared conviction that our current laws on illicit drugs are not working (use is not decreasing) and are actually creating more harm and to hear from a man whose country had done something to reduce the harm and turn things around. That man was Dr Manuel Cardoso, a medical doctor and public health expert and one of the key figures behind the decriminalisation of all illicit drug use in Portugal in 2001.
The evening was hosted jointly by Uniting and Unharm, an organisation that campaigns for drug law reform. Uniting’s involvement stems from the 2016 resolution by our Synod to work for greater investment in drug treatment and harm reduction programs and to advocate for the decriminalisation of personal possession and use of illicit drugs. After welcomes by Rev Ken Day, Minister at St Stephens and Uniting’s Doug Taylor, Will Tregoning, the founder and Director of Unharm introduced the event. He reflected that, as a lapsed Catholic, he had not been in a church for some years, but that perhaps the Jesus he had heard about, and whose image was in the window above him, would not be out of place in a meeting such as this. He then interviewed Dr Cardoso on what Portugal did and why they did it.
Evidence and pragmatism
Dr Cardoso explained that in the late 1990s Portugal, a small nation of 10 million people, was facing an unprecedented and significant health emergency. The fall of an autocratic regime and greater wealth led to an influx of illicit drugs. The most used substance was cannabis, but more than one in a hundred people were using heroin. Deaths from overdoses, a sharp rise in HIV infection and a host of other problems stemming from addiction resulted. A large proportion of Portuguese families were affected in some way. The Government set up a commission to find a solution. That group decided on a new approach to illicit drugs, based on evidence and pragmatism. They opted for the decriminalisation of possession and use of illicit drugs as part of a comprehensive raft of programs for those adversely affected by illicit drugs. The approach included initiatives on prevention, treatment and social reintegration, including employment. At the heart of this model was the conviction that a person with an addiction “is someone who needs help, needs treatment, not someone who needs to go to jail, to be punished”. A core strategy was the establishment of many “dissuasion panels”, staffed by health, medical, psychiatric and other experts.
Under this system when the police found someone with illicit drugs, they weren’t sent to court and possibly prison, but to a dissuasion panel, who assessed their drug use in the context of their whole life. Those with addiction problems were referred to treatment, others were provided other supports to rethink and change their drug use. Civil sanctions could still apply for those who refused assistance.
What has happened since these changes were introduced? The benefits have been pronounced.
Deaths from overdoses have fallen sharply to just 0.35 per 100, 000 people. By contrast Australia’s overdose death rate is more than twenty times higher than that figure and rising. The Portuguese model has resulted in other benefits: problematic drug use has reduced, HIV infection rates have fallen steeply and the financial cost on the criminal justice system and other social costs have lessened considerably. Nearly two thirds (60.6%) of those referred to dissuasion panels say it has changed their lives for the better, saying they give more attention to their health or spend more time with family and/or friends. Nearly three quarters (74.4%) say the process has changed their drug use, either by stopping illicit use altogether or consuming less overall or less riskily than previously. Importantly, police have supported the changes which have enabled them to give more energy and resources to better investigation of large scale supply and enhanced international cooperation on trafficking. And despite the fears of some, drug use has not risen.
Authority comes from ordinary people
Later in the evening Mr Tregoning invited Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop, ex-Premier of Western Australia and Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre on stage to share their views. Prof Gallop spoke of his government’s efforts to decriminalise cannabis in Western Australia in the early 2000s. While the legislation was successful it was overturned when a new government came into power. On reflection, he lamented not getting bi-partisan support for change – saying, “without that, it won’t get locked in.” He strongly affirmed the “authority that comes from ordinary people” who “gather the evidence of what works and knock on the doors of their politicians” to seek change. Dr Jauncey spoke of her long experience in the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre established by Uniting in 2001. In that time the centre has supervised more than 1.1 million injections. While there have been 7500 overdoses among them, not a single life has been lost, as help is close at hand. She stated that for her however, “the most important thing is to treat people as human beings, with dignity and respect”. She asked what we in the audience would want to happen if someone we loved was stopped by police with drugs in their possession – we all want them to be safe, and sent not to court, but to someone interested in their wellbeing.
At the end of the evening audience members were invited to comment or ask a question.
One of the last to speak was Marion McConnell from Canberra Region Presbytery. Marion told of the personal tragedy, the death of her son from a heroin overdose, which propelled her and her late husband Brian into a 25 year struggle for drug law reform. She came forward to speak she said, with mixed feelings and thoughts.
She spoke of her gratitude for so many people, including so many younger people, filling the church in the cause of drug law reform. She told of her pride in her own Uniting Church, for being willing to take a stand on this issue and treat people using illicit drugs, as Marianne had called for, as human beings, as people. And she spoke of her deep frustration that after so many years of telling her story and many others telling their stories and campaigning, the crucial changes to legislation had not yet been made. She finished with a plea that change would finally come. Marion’s heartfelt appeal was answered with the loudest applause of the evening, from all those gathered.
Uniting will continue its work for drug law reform on behalf of the Synod and continue to partner with more than 60 other organisations of goodwill who share the conviction of the need to find a better way on this issue.
For more information about the drug law reform campaign contact Kyle Cox, Senior Advisor, Campaigns and Advocacy at Uniting, firstname.lastname@example.org or 0481 903 156.
For a theological reflection on the issues around drug law reform, prepared by Rev. Dr Chris Budden and Rev. Dr Rhonda White click here.
Jon O’Brien, Head of Social Justice Forum