20/04/2016 6:03 AM AEST | Updated 28/09/2016 9:59 PM AEST

We Need A Joint Approach On Drug Reform

The current state and federal governments refuse to acknowledge the key role of harm reduction in providing safety and saving lives. Instead, they are forging ahead with their illogical and impossible pursuit of a drug-free society based on the old, heavy-handed law-and-order approach.

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Detail of a man holding a joint

The political 'time' for an issue can be an unpredictable thing. It's usually dependent on a multitude of factors, such as evolving public opinion, international trends, and often the catalyst of an instigating 'event' that shocks policymakers into taking action.

Domestic violence is a case in point. The issue stormed into Australian politics in 2014 and refused to go away. While people had been becoming aware of the scale of violence, the horrific and shocking story of Rosie and Luke Batty, and the work of many campaigners declaring the situation a "national emergency", really brought it to national attention.

So, has drug law reform's time come?

As the UN General Assembly's Special Session on drugs convenes this week, people in the community increasingly want to talk about alternatives to the failed prohibitionist approach to drugs. Recent events, including a string of tragic drug-related deaths of young people at music festivals, have provided a new focus on drug law reform and particularly strategies to deal with MDMA -- see, for instance, the five-year trend of Google searches for pill-testing.

However, the current state and federal governments refuse to acknowledge the key role of harm reduction in providing safety and saving lives. Instead, they are forging ahead with their illogical and impossible pursuit of a drug-free society based on the old, heavy-handed law-and-order approach.

But... I feel there has been a shift. We are close to a tipping point, thanks to the consistent work of many stakeholders and activists who have spent years fighting these tough battles in the political minefield that is illicit drug policy.

Last month's long-awaited Australian Parliamentary Drug Summit resulted in the Canberra Declaration -- a cross-party, cross-stakeholder commitment to harm-minimisation and decriminalisation. While parliamentarians who publicly support harm reduction are still in the minority, their numbers across all sides of politics are growing.

Importantly, both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have strongly editorialised this year in favour of a new drugs debate that promotes health and human rights rather than criminal justice and law and order.

What has changed in the past six months?

Clearly, the tragic losses of numerous young Australians to bad drugs or overdoses during the 2015-16 summer music festival season were a real wake-up call. These deaths preceded prominent reports and commentary throughout all sections of the news media, including an in-depth feature on Four Corners. Calls for a pill-testing trial were consistent throughout, coming from medical, legal, activist and political voices.

Alongside all of this, we are seeing quickening international change. Over the past five years, we have seen numerous U.S. states move to legalise and regulate adult recreational cannabis on the grounds that prohibition has not worked. The sky has clearly not fallen in on Colorado, Washington, Alaska, or anywhere else. The upcoming November vote to legalise marijuana in California is widely considered to be a potential 'game changer' for nationwide legalisation. Young Australians are particularly attuned to what is happening in overseas jurisdictions.

I visited California and Oregon earlier this year and had eye-opening conversations with experts and activists about how this transformation came about, as well as visiting growing facilities and dispensaries. It's clear that having open discussions about drugs also gets rid of the stigma that drug users so often face. Most importantly, I realised the need for those many factors that have to come together to spur change, including strong political and community leadership and collaboration from all sectors of society.

Of course, there are many challenges. We have to overcome cringe-inducing political own-goals. The baffling and farcical 'Stoner Sloth' campaign -- which set the NSW government back a cool $350,000 last year -- is a typical example. The campaign was based on an infantile and childish approach to cannabis that was ripe for mockery. It had no educational value; rather than educating people about the issues associated with smoking marijuana, it talked down to them. Jeff Sparrow perhaps put it best when he said the campaign was "a symptom of our inept drugs debate." Just this week, we are seeing reports that the Queensland government will inexplicably push to reclassify cannabis to be considered as 'dangerous' as heroin.

To keep up our momentum, then, we will need to capitalise on successes and use creative ways of keeping people talking. While it is possible for an issue to bubble quickly to the surface, it can just as quickly simmer down again, and it is essential that we keep the pressure on. Alex Wodak and David Caldicott's proposed renegade pill-testing venture is an example of a bold and headline-grabbing experiment that both attracts public attention and, with doctors at its heart, focuses on the health and medical aspects of harm-reduction techniques.

Ultimately, as with so many other issues, strong voices will have to keep coming from outside of parliament in order to keep the pressure on those inside. But parliamentarians must also take the risk of being brave, coming together and working within their parties to achieve the reforms we so desperately need. Over the coming months, I look forward to working with them and the community. Let's make sure that 2016 is indeed the year where we rise above party politics and make decisions based on evidence and for the health and well-being of the people who we represent.