Gladys Berejiklian has ruled out decriminalising drug use in New South Wales, saying her government “will not be going down that path”.
On Wednesday the Seven Network reported the NSW cabinet was considering changes to drug laws in the state that would lower penalties for low-level drug possession.
While initial reports described the proposal as a form of “decriminalisation”, the details indicate the government is instead considering a form of depenalisation by introducing a warning system for people found with small quantities of drugs.
Though the government has declined to provide on the record details of the proposal, it would essentially introduce a tiered system where a person found in possession of a small quantity of drugs would first be let off with a warning.
If they were caught a second or third time in a 12-month period they would be fined.
Only if it occurred a fourth time in the same period would they potentially face criminal charges.
On Thursday Berejiklian ruled out decriminalisation, saying the government’s position was “black and white”, but did not comment in detail on the proposal before cabinet.
“I do not, do not, support the decriminalisation of drugs and nor does my government,” she said.
“You’ll remember last summer we resisted a lot of pressure to test drugs at festivals and we did not even go down that path. I do not and my government does not and we will not be decriminalising drugs. Drugs are a scourge on our community.”
The proposal is part of the yet-to-be-released response to the government’s own special commission into drug use which in February issued a scathing final report on the impact of criminalising drug users, labelling it a “profound flaw” in the NSW criminal justice system and recommending the complete decriminalisation of drug possession in the state.
The commission found the criminalisation of drug use had caused “disproportionate harm” to users, and was “not effective” in curbing drug use.
Commissioner Dan Howard wrote that criminalising drug use had given society “tacit permission to turn a blind eye” to factors underlying drug use including childhood abuse, domestic violence, unemployment and social disadvantage.
“[B]y stigmatising people who use and possess illicit drugs as criminals, we are marginalising them and raising significant barriers that discourage them from seeking help,” Howard wrote in his forward to the report.
Mark Ferry, the acting chief executive of the Ted Noffs Foundation, urged the government to back the proposal, saying it should “accept the mountains of work, evidence, and research delivered by the recent special commission”.
“It cannot be allowed to gather dust because politicians do not want to appear ‘soft on drugs’,” he said.
“The only way to be tough on drugs is to accept that it’s a health issue. The proposal to remove criminal penalties for personal use will make it easier for people to get help and make NSW safer in the process.
“Political leaders who cling to a misguided ‘crackdown’ approach do so at the expense of mountains of evidence and the safety of young people in NSW. Such laws do not reduce drug use and actively cause harm in the community.”
The Uniting Church, which through its charity arm runs the medically supervised injecting room in Kings Cross, also urged the government to back the proposal.
“This [is] a small but positive step as NSW government moves in the direction to treat drug use as a health and social issue,” the NSW moderator of the church, Rev Simon Hansford, said.
“A common-sense approach for all people with drug dependency will reduce stigma and create an open conversation.”
Yet despite its broad backing from drug reform and health experts the proposal immediately drew backlash from some members of the government, as well as the federal Labor senator Kristina Keneally.
Speaking on Sydney radio station 2GB, Keneally said she was “not yet convinced that what I see is the right way forward”.
“I would strongly urge the cabinet to slow down and listen to some experts,” she said.
Similarly the deputy premier, John Barilaro, told 2GB the government was “not going soft on crime”.
“We’ll continue to make sure when it comes to drug dealers in this state that they get the maximum penalty thrown at them,” he said.
The government is still yet to formally respond to its findings, but has ruled out some of its recommendations including the introduction of pill testing at music festivals.
While Berejiklian has ruled out decriminalisation, NSW already uses forms of depenalisation in its drug enforcement regime. For example, the cannabis cautioning system, which has been in place since 2000, allows police to issue a warning for people caught with small amounts of cannabis.
The NSW police website says the scheme is a recognition that “arresting people for minor drug offences is not always an effective response”.
On Thursday the NSW deputy commissioner, Gary Worboys, said he believed that “no amount of drug use is acceptable”, while saying that programs to divert drug users from the criminal justice system “have worked for certain people, particularly young people”.
“As it stands right now the laws are very plain and very simple. The police will always go about upholding those laws [and] we definitely don’t condone or allow any scope for people to take, or carry or supply illicit drugs,” he said.
But, he said, programs which have been “diverting people, particularly young people, from the criminal justice system” had also “given us good results for those people and the community.”