We don’t fine people for alcohol consumption. Why should other drug use be any different?

If the ACT is going to decriminalise drugs, it should do it properly

Will Tregoning

Men who have sex with other men would be incurring fines today, if back in the 1970s we had followed the logic of drug decriminalisation legislation currently being proposed in the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The bill proposes “decriminalising” drug use by introducing new fines for consumers caught by the police.

The ACT led the way in Australia with a proposal in 1973 to decriminalise male-male sex. No fines were involved. The Fraser federal government followed through and approved it in 1976. In 2015 the ACT went further, expunging historical homosexual sex convictions.

That’s clearly different from the “‘decriminalisation” model being proposed for drug consumers today.

Prior to the 1970s, when being gay was a crime, public attitudes to homosexuality were highly stigmatising. Fearing prosecution and social rejection, people lied about their sexual orientation. This perpetuated an unhealthy narrative within the community.

It was wrong, dangerous and harmful to many members of the public. It destroyed lives.

That all changed when people stood together, shared their experiences publicly and destroyed the stigma about being gay. They came out loud and proud. With their help, the laws changed and we now live in a happier, more accepting and more vibrant community.

Honesty is one of the most important values we are taught as children. It’s a foundation for real connection and care. But, due to criminalisation, there’s a silence around normal experiences of drug use within our community.

As with alcohol, people who consume illegal drugs mostly manage them well. We are in all parts of Australian society. For the privileged, drug use is a private matter and practically decriminalised already. Those with fewer advantages are unfairly targeted. Most don’t feel safe sharing their positive experiences publicly.

Around the world, countries are stepping into the future and rejecting prohibition. Supported by better laws and services, connected communities are managing drug use well. Australia can be a country that gets drugs right, and the ACT can lead the way.

It can start with a more honest conversation about drugs in Australian culture.

Part of Australian culture is to pretend alcohol is not a drug. In many social settings, alcohol consumption is expected and celebrated.

Meanwhile, alcohol addiction attracts such stigma and shame that people who experience it usually delay seeking help for years, or decades.

The fact that alcohol use doesn’t attract a fine, whereas other drug use does, helps perpetuate that false distinction. Fines disproportionately affect poor and homeless people. They are a hangover from a stigmatising system the ACT has mostly moved beyond. And they are getting in the way of a more honest approach to regulating drugs.

Partial decriminalisation, like what’s currently on the table, is nothing new. The national diversion framework John Howard’s federal government set up in the 1990s made it mainstream policy to divert consumers out of the criminal justice system.

But policing practice has been quite different. Outside the ACT, quasi-decriminalisation regimes have seen police double the number of drug consumer arrests, to more than 130,000 a year. Partial decriminalisation, perversely, has been a step back.

When the ACT “decriminalises” drug use, it will set a benchmark for other states and territories. Australia’s smallest and most sensible jurisdiction should do it right.

There should be no fines for drug use, nor for two men having sex, nor for someone sipping a chardonnay.

Will Tregoning is founder and chief executive of Unharm.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Canberra Times, July 31 2021.