Justice Action (JA) is a community organisation that is a known, long-standing defender of the human rights of detained, marginalised and excluded Australians in Australian prisons and hospitals. JA strives to improve the mental and social health of these minorities. As a member of the Australian Capital Territory Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS), as well as an ‘essential’ presence at the NSW Drug Summit and International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) (1997), we support the decriminalisation of drug use in Australia. Australian drug laws are regressive, punitive and harbour a very strict approach as they are influenced by the ‘war on drugs’ mentality. Instead, legislative change must be implemented to enable the introduction of a Needle and Syringe Program (NSP) in the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) for those who wish to use it. This is to ensure the prevention of disease transmission within prisons, as well as to secure detainees’ rights to an equivalent healthcare system.
Unfairness of Drug Laws
In 2019, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that 43% of Australians over the age of 14 have used illicit drugs in their lifetime. While this does not reflect the extent of drug dependency in Australia, drug use is a serious and complex issue that can have both short term and long term effects on the user, their family, friends and community. These can be severe, even contributing to the development of mental illness. However, instead of treating this as a public health policy issue, Australia has adopted a zero tolerance approach in criminalising any engagement with illicit drugs, a phenomenon which has no doubt been fuelled by the media’s inaccurate portrayal of drugs. In fact, 80% of prisoners in New South Wales are estimated to be imprisoned due to drug related offences. This ‘war on drugs’ is an outdated approach as it fails to neutralise the complex reasons behind why so many Australians have engaged in the use of illicit drugs. Punitive measures remain the primary methods to address this issue, but they do not reduce use rate nor incarceration. If anything, the increased number of detainees caused by the overcriminalisation of drug use places additional strains on already-limited prison resources, especially that of healthcare.
This is particularly detrimental to the health of marginalised populations such as incarcerated women, rural communities, LBGTI+ people and Indigenous communities. Furthermore, criminal conviction significantly exacerbates the struggles of drug users who are of a lower socioeconomic status (SES), for example, through worsened employment opportunity outcomes. This disadvantage also often does not end with the convicted individual themselves – rather, it is perpetuated intergenerationally.
It is further worth noting that the current approach is economically unviable. Australia spends approximately $2 billion every year in their war against drugs – over half of which is spent on law enforcement to address supply offences, despite the fact that no cost benefit analysis is conducted to ensure the effectiveness of this approach. This leaves only $700m every year to be spent on treatment across all Commonwealth, State and Territory budgets.
Therefore, legislation and budgeting regarding illicit drug use should retain a focus on prevention rather than punitive responses that are incited after the harm has already occured. After all, detainees themselves have indicated they would prefer to avoid infection rather than undertake expensive post-infection treatment strategies. JA recommends promoting non-custodial punishments and the decriminalisation of drug use, as this would effectively reduce the number of imprisoned persons. Additionally, drug use should be addressed as a public health issue above all. In tandem with this approach, JA supports the Bill and proposes the introduction of the Needle and Syringe Program (NSP) to reduce cross infections in prisons. This will be elaborated in the following section.
Alternative Responses (Needle and Syringe Program (NSP))
As stated, the rates of illicit drug use is extremely high in all Australians, incarcerated or not. The difference lies in the fact that unincarcerated Australians are able to access healthcare to ensure safe drug use whereas the detained are not, despite the fact that this right should be inalienable. For example, approximately 25% of prisoners in Australia use furtive injecting methods, using hundreds of reused, resharpened and dirty needles that circulate around the prison. Individuals with existing drug use histories are severed from their control over their substance intake upon entrance into prison.
This directly leads to the aggravation of their already-deteriorated health conditions. In particular, the lack of access to safe and sterile syringe and needle methods have fostered alarming rates of blood-borne virus transmissions within prisons. Over one-third of Australian prisoners are estimated to be infected with Hepatitis C virus (HCV). Eventually, almost all of these prisoners will be released, spreading HCV within the community.
The Needle and Syringe Program (NSP) provides a solution to this issue. The NSP is a public health program providing individuals who inject illicit drugs with comprehensive access to sterile injecting equipment and sharp bins to safely dispose of contaminated drug paraphernalia. Through the provision of such equipment and a mix of outlet types and service delivery models, the program aims to prevent the transmission of blood-borne viruses, such as HCV. Similar programs have been implemented in countries such as Germany and have resulted in positive outcomes – no stabbing occurrences, no increase of drug use and improvement of the general penal health environment.
The NSP is presently accessible to the wider community in Australia. However, it is not available to detainees in any Australian correctional facility. Considering the overwhelming evidence that the current model of drug criminalisation does not deter individuals from using – for female prisoners in Australia, 14% use ecstasy, 20% use heroin, 30% use tranquilisers, 38% use analgesics and 44% use methamphetamine, while the figures for men are 9%, 14%, 15%, 15% and 36% respectively – the NSP could be a highly beneficial alternative. To normalise drugs in this way would indicate that prisoners would be able to regain control of the substances they inevitably choose to take and, in turn, improve the high incarceration rates.
Position Alignment and Conclusion
ATODA endorses ‘evidence-based community discussion about drug laws’ and recommends the inclusion of people who are using drugs in the development and monitoring of policy. The Bill seeks to allow some drug offences (small amounts) to be dealt with by issuing Simple Offence Notice, confiscating substances and referring drug users to medical professionals instead of criminal conviction. This will more effectively address the root causes of the illicit drug abuse issues. Justice Action’s position aligns with ATODA and the Bill on drugs as a health and human rights issue, ‘reducing the burden on our criminal justice system.’ This decriminalisation approach is crucial to transitioning from punitive to rehabilitative measures and is a positive step towards NSPs. JA welcomes the Bill’s attempt to incur a paradigm shift from the view of drug use as an act that must be punished to the view it is a health condition that must be treated.
1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Canberra: AIHW; 2020
2 Susan Boyd, ‘Media constructions of illegal drugs, users, and sellers: a closer look at Trafﬁc’ (2002) 13 International Journal of Drug Policy, 397
3 New South Wales Corrections Health Service (CHS)
4 Explanatory Statement, Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Bill 2021
5 Drug Use Monitoring in Australia program, Australian Institute of Criminology
6 Christopher R. Dennison and Stephen Demuth, ‘The More You Have, the More You Lose: Criminal Justice Involvement, Ascribed Socioeconomic Status, and Achieved SES’ (2018) 65(2) Social Problems <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6438383/>
7 Fair Treatment, ‘Why We Need to Change Our Approach to People Who Need Treatment’ (October 2018)
8 Explanatory Statement, Drugs of Dependence (Personal Use) Amendment Bill 2021
9 ‘Time for Blue and Green to Come Together Over Hep C’, Justice Action (Web Page, 5 May 2021) <https://justiceaction.org.au/just-us-article/>
10 Skye Kinder, ‘Ethical justice: needle and syringe programs in Australian prisons’, Insight+, (Online at 27 April 2020) <https://insightplus.mja.com.au/2020/16/ethical-justice-needle-and-syringe-programs-in-australian-prisons/>
11 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The Health of Australia’s Prisoners 2012, Canberra: 2013, p. 84