No more arrests for personal drug use – what does decriminalisation look like?

Sophie Stockman

Uniting NSW ACT has released a landmark discussion paper setting out in detail their proposal for how the laws should be changed to decriminalise drug use. We spoke with Head of Advocacy at Uniting, Emma Maiden, to find out how this paper plans to bring about policy change.

What the paper hopes to achieve

Uniting is responsible for the social justice, community services and chaplaincy work of the Uniting Church in NSW and the ACT with a particular focus on supporting people experiencing disadvantage and vulnerability. While Uniting has always supported decriminalisation, there has never been any explanation of what exactly that means. The conversation has been missing important details about whether decriminalisation should apply to everyone, whether it should apply to all drugs, and what happens when someone is caught with personal quantities. Uniting has written this paper to fill that gap. 

The paper was published on November 26th, and next year Uniting will be taking it to State Parliament to support a series of one-on-one conversations with MPs. Emma says that “an accessible discussion paper has been missing from the conversation, so we want ours to play that role when talking about drug law reform.”

The Fair Treatment campaign

The discussion paper is part of Uniting’s Fair Treatment campaign. Fair Treatment started in 2016 when the Church’s governing body decided to support the decriminalisation of all drugs and the expansion of treatment services. In 2018, Fair Treatment was launched to advance these goals and now has over 60 partners across legal services, health care, community organisations and union groups. Emma says the campaign is designed around achieving a five-year timeline to decriminalisation by 2025. 

“We are on a decriminalisation pathway already in terms of de facto measures in New South Wales, so this is not a revolution,” she says. 

“This paper will challenge assumptions people may have about the drug reform debate as it gets into the nitty-gritty, which some may find confronting, but decriminalisation is the way that we can actually make a difference in the lives of people with drug dependency.”

What’s stopping us?

So, what’s stopping Australia from decriminalising drug use? Emma believes that it’s not about politics, religion or race, but instead about whether people have had a personal experience with a loved one with a drug dependency. 

“There are individuals that have certain ideas – the NSW Premier has firm ideas about this issue – but you couldn’t characterise the entire party or cabinet that way,” explains Emma. “The main problem is when our fear wins over our rationality.”

Other than reaching out to politicians, Uniting wants to leverage the discussion paper to mobilise other religious groups, community groups, and individuals to support a non-criminal approach to drug use. As Uniting already works in rural and regional areas, Emma says they hope to enter some of those places that politicians might think represent a conservative middle to have these conversations because there will be people who have experience with loved ones who have drug dependencies. Emma believes these people will be able to challenge stereotypes, debunk fears and bring the conversation on decriminalisation to light. 

Debunking misconceptions

The paper recognises that most people who use drugs live otherwise normal lives. Uniting stands for treatment being available if it’s needed, but also acknowledges that most people who use drugs don’t require treatment, nor do they want it. Instead, the paper describes a system where referral is supported without being mandatory in order to meet people where they’re at and having enough services available for those who are putting their hand up for help. 

Another misconception around drug reform that the paper seeks to address is the idea around ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs. While decriminalising cannabis may seem more palatable on the assumption that it is less harmful than ‘harder’ drugs, the more serious social and health problems associated with opioids and methamphetamine use means that there is even more need for a different response that favours health and wellbeing over criminalisation. 

Uniting hopes this discussion paper will be referred to by politicians, community members and other organisations when delving deeper into decriminalisation. Anchored in a values-based approach, the paper brings to light some of the more complex questions around how the legislation would look in practice. The paper highlights how certain discourse around drug use has led to the stigmatisation of some of the most vulnerable people in our community. It’s this conversation that provides the basis for changing our approach to drug use both as a society and as lawmakers. 

Click here to read the full discussion paper by Uniting, Possession and Use of Drugs – Options for Changing the Law.

Photo Credit:
 Nina Strehl on Unsplash 


  1. 2020. POSSESSION AND USE OF DRUGS. Options For Changing The Law. [ebook] Sydney: Uniting NSW.ACT. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 November 2020]