Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

New drug laws reflect badly on Government

by Brian McConnell

(Published in The Canberra Times on 17 March 2005)

Although aimed at drug traffickers and serious drug offenders, the new ACT cannabis laws effective from 6 March, in fact widens the net and can impose draconian penalties on young people experimenting in or addicted to the drug. Parents who want their kids to survive their experimenting years without the burden of a criminal record, should be concerned about the implications of these changes
The new law will, amongst other things change the number of plants for which a Simple Cannabis Offence Notice (SCON) can be issued. It aims to prevent drug traffickers organising co-operatives of smaller (mostly hydroponic) growers.
The changes to the law have origins in the 1982 Williams Royal Commission well before any SCON system. It gathered momentum in 1997 through the Officers Committee of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. The ACT Government, apparently, unreservedly implemented the outcomes of those processes – outcomes that were almost solely driven by a legal mindset of some 22 years ago where the thought of alternate approaches or social consequences were not on the radar.
Reports in The Canberra Times in 2004 left no doubt that large hydroponic cannabis plants, producing quantities exceeding reasonable personal-use amounts, were being grown in rented houses.
Police raids in 2004 have eliminated such cannabis production, the Chief Police Officer recently told a Legislative Assembly Committee. 
Eliminated under the old laws!  This suggests that it has not been necessary to change the SCON system.
It is surprising that the Stanhope Government, normally a very consultative Government, made no attempt to consult relevant parties other than law enforcement, prior to introducing the Bill into the Assembly.  It is also surprising that no account was taken of the December 2000 Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Health and Community Care report Cannabis Use in the ACT - a very thorough report that recommended workable solutions even for this problem of co-operative growing. 
If such committee reports are not taken into account, then what is the value of such committees?
The SCON system that served the ACT well for 15 years aimed to:
·         separate the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs markets,
·         minimise harm associated with use and minimise the harm associated with policing of use,
·         keep kids out of the courts and thus avoiding a criminal record,
·         better deal with an activity undertaken at some time by one third of the population.
Statistics show that the use of cannabis is not significantly different between states and territories even though different laws apply. However research by the Federal Department of Health (Monograph #43) demonstrated clearly the social benefits of systems like that applying in the ACT and equally clearly demonstrated the serious consequences of application of criminal law to simple cannabis offences.
The changed law has undermined these basic aims.
The law will now define, for example, a person dwelling in a flat and growing a few plants in their bathroom for their own purposes as a criminal for which they could receive a 2 year gaol sentence.
Will the changes reduce the number of drug dealers and the supply of drugs, thus achieving the primary aim of all drug laws – reduction of drug use?
If history is any guide then we would have to conclude that it will not. The high profits that can be made as a direct consequence of prohibiting drugs and the steady demand, even under the harshest drug-law regimes, guarantees a steady replacement of apprehended drug dealers
These new laws reflect badly on an ACT Government that otherwise has shown such great promise espousing principles such as harm minimisation, a whole of government approach, a social inclusion plan, a new drug strategy, and so on.
Only a full evaluation of effectiveness of the changed drug laws after they have been in operation for a period will demonstrate their effectiveness.  However until that evaluation take place, resulting in the inevitable revision of drug laws, one can only hope that police and others in the criminal justice system will use common sense and discretion so that the least possible harm is visited on minor drug offenders.

Brian McConnell is president of Families and Friends for Drug Law reform