Should the government decriminalise drugs? Special Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Ideas live panel

17 May 2012

Should the government decriminalise drugs? Join the live panel discussion.
Should the government decriminalise drugs? Join the live panel discussion.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr, whose brother died of a heroin overdose, advocates decriminalising low-level drug use. Prime Minister Julia Gillard thinks tough policing is the answer. Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon believes community resistance to relaxing laws would likely prove too high.

If even the federal government can't agree on this important issue what is the way forward? And whose voice should be heard in this debate - addicts, medicos, politicians, young people, bureaucrats, victims of drug-related crime?

Earlier this year Australia21 brought together experts to consider the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy report and its finding that the "War on Drugs" had failed. Among many recommendations, the Australia21 roundtable called for media to lead an evidence-based discussion on drugs policy to reopen debate on prohibition.

The Sydney Morning Herald, in partnership with Sydney Ideas - the University of Sydney's premier public lecture series program - will answer this call, staging a special panel-led public forum on Monday 21 May at the Sydney Law School.

The live discussion "Should the Government decriminalise drugs?" to be hosted by Sydney Morning Herald Editor in Chief and Publisher Peter Fray, will consider the vexed question from the perspective of six noted commentators in the field.

Two of the six panellists are from the University of Sydney - Professor Kate Conigrave, our respected addiction medicine expert, and Vivienne Moxham-Hall, who is a University of Sydney student union director, master's student and Australia21 honorary adviser.

Other forum panel participants include Sydney Morning Herald senior writer David Marr; Family Drug Support Chief Executive Officer Tony Trimingham; Drug Free Australia Secretary and Research Director Gary Christian; and Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation President Dr Alex Wodak.

Speaking ahead of her presentation Professor Conigrave said she is particularly concerned by the interplay of mental illness, trauma and disadvantage as triggers for drug use. She will approach the question from the perspective of her clinical experience with people trying to overcome drug and alcohol problems, as well as the community impact of criminalisation.

"We need a more balanced, more rational view on drug issues, driven by evidence and compassion rather than by fear. We need to take a step back and look at what causes and fixes drug problems and do what makes sense for users and the community," Professor Conigrave said.

"The majority of people I see who are trying to get off drugs are themselves victims. Many have lived through childhood violence or neglect, often linked to a parent's drinking. So punishing people for their drug use is often essentially punishing them for their bad choice of parents. Other individuals suffer from mental illness, or just experimented in their youth. Criminalising drugs just makes it harder for people seeking treatment to get jobs and turn their life around. It can propel people into a downward cycle."

Vivienne Moxham-Hall said that there are few people in her social circles at both high school and university who haven't experimented with drugs. She says that criminalisation often leads to dangerous consumption of drugs such as people hiding their drug possession at festivals by taking all that might be on them at the time. She also said criminalisation means young people who experiment with drugs risk a permanent criminal record which could harm their future employment options.

"There is a culture of drug use in Australia surrounding rave parties, music festivals and the hospitality industry. Often to avoid security in such events and places young people can engage in risky drug taking behaviour or will not call an ambulance if something goes wrong," said Ms Moxham-Hall.

"Drug use can start as young as 15, which is predominantly marijuana experimentation… if drugs were decriminalised there could be more open discussion and education programs for these people about the potential harm of consumption that young. For most of them, it's the illegal factor, which adds to the intrigue of drug consumption."

Ms Moxham-Hall, who was made an Australia21 honorary adviser after her participation in its roundtable, said she went into the Australia21 roundtable ambivalent about drug legalisation, but after hearing from the experts in the field and reading more about alternative options believes there is strong evidence that decriminalisation and harm minimisation works.

"I don't think the status quo is working and we need to change it. It is time for politicians to take this seriously and help us break down the taboo around the discussion, not reinforce it. We need to breathe life into reports such as the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy, not have them collect dust on someone's desk," she said.

Event details

What: Should the government decriminalise drugs?, a live panel-led discussion

When: 6 to 7.30pm, Monday 21 May

Where: Lecture Theatre 101, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions 

Cost: This event is free and open to all, with no ticket or booking required. Seating is unreserved, entry is on a first-come, first-served basis

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