Potential Pitfalls of Drug Decriminalisation

On the 5th of November 2022, the ABC demonstrated exemplar reporting of the ACT’s decision to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs in an ABC News In-Depth television piece. In doing so, the ABC provided an analysis of the benefits, and potential risks of decriminalisation, allowing the viewer to develop an informed opinion.

Importantly, the report framed drug addiction as a health rather than criminal issue and took an evidence-informed approach through providing data about how decriminalisation has played out in other countries. This is refreshing in comparison to all-too-common media coverage which seeks to sensationalise and demonise drug use and the people who use them.

The ABC piece suggested that the changes afoot in Canberra were a ‘test case’ for the rest of the nation. This progressive approach by the Labor party was lauded in the article, and perhaps deservedly so, as a change like this in drug policy will invariably be met by resistance from conversative sections of society. However, it is important to note that Labor is doing very little at a federal level, nor in states such as WA and QLD, where Labor are in power and a more ‘hard-line’ approach to drug policy is being promoted.

Because Portugal has had a policy of decriminalisation in place since 2001, there is a large amount of data that can be used to assess whether the policy has been a success or not. As the ABC piece highlighted, decriminalisation in Portugal has resulted in a significant reduction in overdoses, crime and incarceration. It also mentioned that drug use has fallen in Portugal as a result of these changes in policy, whereas drug use has increased in most other European countries.

There are additional data indicating that Portugal’s decriminalisation policy has been successful that were not included in the ABC piece. For example, rates of HIV and Hepatitis have also significantly dropped in Portugal. Similarly, decriminalisation provides opportunities by reallocating funds from policing and justice into harm-minimisation policies focused on education and prevention, which have been demonstrated to reduce drug use and addiction, as well as harm to both individuals and society.

However, the ABC piece also noted that decriminalisation efforts have not all been positive. For example, in Portland, Oregon, where decriminalisation was implemented in 2020, but both crime and deaths by overdose have increased. This crisis underscores the potential pitfalls of policy change if not managed correctly. According to law enforcement officials operating in the front line of a worsening crisis, the Portland experiment is failing as result of inadequate treatment options for people who use drugs. A key reason why the Portugal model was successful was that the saved expenditure on law enforcement was instead diverted into addiction treatment programmes.

Of course, the US is very different to Portugal and Australia, in that access to healthcare is restricted for large parts of the population, depending on whether they are insured or not. Similarly, there are a myriad of other factors at play in the worsening ‘opioid crisis’ in America, related to increasing inequality, racial injustice and homelessness – not to mention the disastrous consequences of failing to regulate the production and distribution of the opioid drug, Oxycontin. These issues are relevant to Australia, though to a much lesser degree than the US, meaning the use of the Portland example might not have as much relevance to Australia as the article suggests.

Interestingly, the Palaszczuk government in Queensland recently rejected the findings of a report they commissioned themselves into the decriminalization of cannabis, even though this report found that the state would benefit financially to the tune of billions of dollars. The ABC report also highlights that certain sections of society, most notably first nations peoples, continue to be prosecuted and incarcerated at a much higher rate than non-indigenous people who use cannabis. It begs the question then, why would the Queensland government reject recommendations which would greatly benefit the community as a whole, and first nations people particularly?

Political resistance to change in drug policy is very much related to the years of misinformation and hysteria propagated by both politicians and the media in the prosecution of the ‘war on drugs’. In charting a way forward, it may be constructive to acknowledge the harms caused by drug policy itself, and likewise the resultant costs to society. Maybe the argument needs to be framed in terms of what we want from our society and how we would like our taxpayer dollars spent. For example, the estimated $10 billion dollars annually spent by the federal government on policing, prosecution and incarceration of people who use drugs could be used instead to treat drug addiction, provide harm reduction and educate the public. Equally, these resources could be used to better detect and prosecute individuals who cause great harm in our communities through the use of violence.

Currently there is little to no conversation in Australia about the additional significant benefits that would result from legalisation, regulation and taxation of currently prohibited substances. Importantly, decriminalisation fails to address the fact that drug trafficking is by far the single largest revenue stream for organized crime and terrorist groups in Australia, and internationally. Society is also missing out on the significant tax revenues which would result from legalisation, money which would be used to further reduce harm associated with drug use and addiction, as well as having money left over to enhance the society we live in, such as spending on community services, health, education and even the arts and sport. Maybe as a society we are not yet ready for the conversation on legalisation, and we need to focus on decriminalisation done effectively as a necessary step-change to enable further evolution in drug policy. Nonetheless, it is heartening to see some positive changes happening in policy and that this is reflected in reasonably balanced and evidence-based media coverage such as this article.


Alan Moloney, Practicing Counsellor with experience in AOD treatment and a passion for drug policy reform

Disclaimer: The author takes full responsibility for the content of this article.

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Journalists that would like to seek expert commentary on drug issues can contact AOD Media Watch who can provide referrals to a range of experts on the issue being reported. Guidelines for journalists can be accessed from our website and resources for the media are available from Mindframe.