Small steps toward decriminalisation may still be possible if NSW Premier can tamp down moral panic

The NSW government seemed to be making progress on the Ice Inquiry when a cabinet leak late last year revealed plans to depenalise personal possession. However, misreporting by the media ignited moral panic that quickly shut down the conversation. There is still opportunity for a small but positive step toward decriminalisation if we can keep an eye on this issue while it’s still live in cabinet. 


In November 2018, the Berijiklian government launched an inquiry into the drug ‘ice’ due to concerns over the rapidly increasing usage across the state. The 14-month inquiry gathered evidence from health officials, judicial experts and ice-affected communities to form 109 recommendations, including decriminalisation and pill-testing. 


The government immediately took its foot off the pedal the moment the findings were handed over. The report itself was held back from being released to the public for months despite health officials calling for its urgent release. The Premier’s reluctance to release the report shows just how the recommendations have made the government squirm. A year later and no action has been taken with the findings still being mulled over in cabinet. 


NSW has taken no action on the report except for outlining which recommendations won’t be considered. In February last year, Health Minister Brad Hazzard ruled out recommendations of additional injecting centres, stopping the use of drug detection dogs and introducing syringe programs in correctional centres. 


It’s not just our politicians who are at crossroads with this issue. Media headlines also baulked at the reform after a cabinet leak late last year revealed the government was considering a depenalisation model. The media erupted in hysteria with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph front-page reading “Bunch of Dopes” while Sky News host Sharri Markson condemned the proposal saying it would be “extremely dangerous” and “encourages drug use”.


In reality, the model is not decriminalisation but instead a form of diversion or depenalisation that issues warnings and fines on a number of occasions before someone may be convicted. Diverting people away from the justice system by taking a more health-based approach would be a small but positive step in the right direction for drug reform. However, by misrepresenting the proposal as decriminalisation, the media whipped up a frenzy that resulted in the Premier coming down hard to say decriminalisation wasn’t on the table. 


"We have received recommendations from the ice inquiry which have been sitting with us and we expect to respond to those.”


"But can I make the position very, very clear – we will not be decriminalising drugs in NSW, and I can't be clearer than that,” she said. 


In terms of the future of drug policy, the three-tiered approach shows moderate yet promising reform. However, the knee-jerk reaction by the government in response to the leak may lead to a watered-down version developed from the already compromised model. 


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Image: Dean Sewell published by Sydney Morning Herald



  1. 2020. Interim NSW Government Response To The Special Commission Of Inquiry Into The Drug “Ice”. [online] Available at: <


  1. Aubusson, K., 2020. 'No Excuse': Doctors Urge Immediate Release Of Ice Inquiry Report. [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 January 2021].


  1. Lucy Cormack, T., 2020. Decriminalisation Ruled Out As Government Considers Early Drug Intervention. [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 January 2021].


  1. Front Pages Today., 2020. You Bunch of Dopes. Ice in their veins. Cabinet to let drug users off. Twitter [online] Available at: <>  [Accessed 7 January 2021].


  1. Markson, S., 2020. NSW Cabinet Proposal To Soften Drug Laws Is 'Dangerous' | Sky News Australia. [online] Sky News Australia. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 January 2021].

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  • Sophie Stockman