Is Decriminalising Hard Drugs Really Such a Bad Idea?

Words by: Jonathon Davidson

Recently, as Perth has been dubbed METH CITY by the West Australian, there have been some contrasting views which have received media attention. These ‘contrasting views,’ in my opinion, can be defined as any opinion on hard drug production, use and manufacture (so, ice, heroin and MDMA) that doesn’t paint the chemical, its users and producers as unrestrained degenerate criminals, lost in the grip of “the epidemic.Unfortunately, these contrasting views often come from easily dismissible local councillors, GPs from badly affected areas, and outspoken shock jockey politicians. Their views often receive media attention because of their opposition in the first place, the outlandishness of the claims being the news angle (read: ‘insane plan to legalise ice,’) and for that reason they rarely are responded to with serious contemplation.

But then sometimes, just sometimes, these contrasting opinions come from reputable sources. Reputable sources like the Australian Drug Foundation’s Head of Policy, respected senators and professors

Recently, Federal Assistant Health Manager Fiona Nash told reporters that decriminalising the drug ice in Australia would make it appear non-dangerous. While ice and heroin are different drugs, it is interesting to note that these comments from Nash come in contrast to the effects of, for example, the heroin injection centre in King’s Cross Sydney, where ambulance callouts to the area dropped by 80%. But let’s not get caught up on that.

Maybe, she’s not wrong. Let’s assume for a moment that decriminalisation does equal a public perception of safety. Even if that is the case, I do think she is misguided in her line of argument (let’s forget the fact she has speechwriters for a moment) – follow that line of logic. The notion that the drug would suddenly appear differently to people post-decriminalisation implies that it would become more mainstream somehow, represented in popular media, discussed more often; which seems to be more in line with an envisionment of society where ice was legalised. 

If you look up ‘decriminalisation’ on google, so many of the arguments against it, whether contained in official reports, speeches or news articles, seem to make these same mistakes in getting legalisation and decriminlisation confused. In many of the sources which argue in support of decriminalisation, the distinction between it and outright legalisation is often one of the most heavily stressed points in the introduction. There is a difference between legalisation and decriminalisation. The most important thing to remember is that decriminlisation doesn’t mean it’s legal. Handy, right? I’ll try to be more descriptive.

Basically, decriminalisation means that drugs are removed from the criminal code, and made the subject of administrative punishment instead. What that means is petty fines, move-on orders, confiscation, maybe even mandatory participation at a counselling session, which is what happens if you were to get busted with weed on you in West Australia. If it’s decriminalised, you still aren’t allowed to sell it, and posession is still regulated. It’s not like decriminalisation means you can whack a small amount of heroin into your bag and go down for a stroll to the park. It means you are not a criminal for doing so. But you’re still breaking the law.

If we’re talking about decriminalising hard drugs, then we need to look at one of the world’s best models for doing so – Portugal. However, one should also aim to remember that Colombia, Norway, Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands do not prosecute individuals with personal amounts of illicit drugs as criminals.

In 2001, Portugal passed laws decriminalising all drugs in the midst of excessively high drug-related HIV cases and addiction putting stress on healthcare capabilities of the nation. That was in 2001. Since then, the country and its drug laws have become the subject of countless studies, articles, books, investigations, inquiries, surveys and household discussions. The hard evidence is in: the policy worked to stop the harmful effects of hard drugs.

In all decriminalised nations, there are strict parameters set around “personal amounts,” and it is in this way that the line between users and dealers are defined. Don’t forget: in a state where drugs are decriminalised, you’re still going to jail if you deal drugs. Amounts change from nation to nation, but if we look at ice because it’s the most relevant example, you’ll see that the Czech Republic has the most generous legislation with anything under 2 grams being considered personal use.

The emphasis has been put on the humane treatment of addicts, and the basic underlying message we can take from this is that the criminal treatment of addicts pushes them into realities of stigma and low self-esteem, reducing the chance that they will seek treatment, and reducing the chance that they will re-integrate with non-users in the larger societal picture.

This, of course, would mean taking a different stance on not only heroin and ecstacy users but also ice users, to whom so much chagrin is currently directed across the nation.

For an example of the way methamphetamine users are currently stigmatised by dominant West Australian institutions, well – here’s an example:


“The” addict. ‘It.’ Not an individual with free agency, but a categorised being. And not a regular person, but a person of darkness and rain, hoodie clad, and vaguely ethnic (go figures).

It is exactly this kind of perspective that pushes a user away into contexts where his-self or her-self are more likely to use, whether they receive this sort of perception in their community, in jail, or in rehab. Even interviews with ex-addicts still manage to cast them in an undesirable light, with close up photographs of sweaty brows, remorseful faces. In all positive cases of decriminalisation, it is the emphasis on the accessibility of recovery and treatment for addicts that are the driving forces of change, and not the legalese scripture  pertaining to those molecular compounds in the respective courts and governments themselves. ‘Decriminalisation’ doesn’t imply that we open the doors to everybody with a substance abuse problem and walk away, it is only one aspect in a holistic strategy designed to prevent users from feeling trapped in a ‘cycle of use,’ and designed to prevent susceptible members of society from deciding to choose “hardcore drug” options in the first place.

Australia has been no stranger to the fact that the drug war has failed, and the consideration of reform within Australia’s drug policy is an argument which seems to only pick up more traction. It was reported in 2012 that ‘just under 40% of Australians‘ support drug decriminalisation.

So why should we consider decriminalisation? Well, for one, in 2014 the UN declared that Australia came first as having the highest amount of recreational drug users in the world. This article hasn’t even gone into the sheer financial costs that states could save on prosecution and jailing, but if Australians are literally the ambassadors of Earth for getting mashed, then the argument doesn’t really have a better place to be operating.