‘It’s hard to get involved in something when you don’t see yourself represented in the movement.’ 

Unwinding white dominance in drug law reform

Will Tregoning

Everyone should be free to walk the streets of our communities without being harassed by police. That’s far from the reality right now for First Nations people. Drug law enforcement is regularly used by police as a pretext to detain and search people. We know from research and anecdotal evidence that police do that in racially discriminatory ways.

But if you’ve had much to do with the drug law reform movement, you might have noticed it’s dominated by white voices and a ‘health issue’ narrative that ignores racialised injustice. That has to change. We can’t rightly claim to be on the side of health and happiness while condoning racist persecution.

This year, as Unharm works towards launching our new campaigns program, I’ve been talking with Aboriginal people who do health or justice work to hear their perspectives on the problems with the status quo, and what a better future would look like. We talked about how campaigns for drug law reform can contribute to First Nations justice and self determination. This is just a starting point, and we will be using it to shape Unharm’s work and ongoing engagement with First Nations communities.

The people I talked with are well aware that discussions about drug law reform rarely engage with racism and that white people lack awareness of how even recreational use is different for black and brown people. It was also really clear that racist policing doesn’t just put Aborginal people at risk of criminal charges, it changes their whole perception of public space as being a place where they are threatened by police violence. This is especially acute in the context of ongoing Aboriginal deaths in custody and the lack of an effective response to the numerous government inquiries into this issue.

People I talked with told me how police frequently use suspicion of drug possession as a pretext for stop and search, and how these interactions often lead to criminal charges or fines for other offences like vehicle defects or resist arrest, even if drugs are not found. One person also observed that racial injustice is bound up with class, and poor Aboriginal people are targeted the most. 

‘To us, they are just targeting us and … [they’re] bound to find something if [they’re] targeting the community.’ 

People I talked to saw drug law reform as important, but also said that drug reform would reduce but not stop police targeting Aboriginal communities: they thought that racist police would find other pretexts for stop and search.

Another challenge was raised by a few people in the conversations who talked about how trauma and disadvantage are endemic in Aboriginal communities and that this affects the ways that people use drugs. One effect of this was summarised by a person who said that ‘because of the ways that drugs have impacted on Aboriginal communities, lots of people are anti-drugs and would therefore be against legalisation.’ They said that there is education work to be done to get people thinking about an alternative reality and what it would look like.

A couple of people raised cannabis law reform as a good place to start. One person said that ‘destigmatising cannabis use in particular is important to us – all my family smoke cannabis. A lot of people smoke cannabis to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.’ Another said that ‘if I was the prime minister, I would legalise all drugs… [but] the easiest thing is to legalise cannabis, to get people’s heads around legalisation, because there’s already an acceptance of medical cannabis.’

Other issues that people highlighted were: 

  • the need for more treatment and support services that are culturally safe and appropriate for Aboriginal people;
  • that there’s a ‘huge issue in relation to child protection’ where drug use by parents is still being used as a pretext to remove Aboriginal children from their families and communities; and 
  • that health services in prisons are terrible – particularly for people using drugs: there’s a lack of access to pain medication, clean injecting equipment, and treatment options.

Specific advice that people gave me about how to do the work well included that white people should do the heavy lifting in advocating for drug law reform, including being more publicly critical of police, and specifically naming racism as a core part of the problem. 

In relation to expanding the reform movement to better address racial injustice, one person advised that we should recognise and reflect on how overwhelmingly white these conversations are, and consider why First Nations communities would want to engage with us if we’re majority white. 

‘It’s hard to get involved in something when you don’t see yourself represented in the movement.’ 

‘What would mob get out of actually engaging, and why would they want to if we’re not doing useful work?

They said that we should think about how we can better build those relationships of trust.

Specific recommendations people made were:

  • To ‘enable mob to feed into the work, and give feedback about what you’re doing.’
  • To make connections with local community controlled health organisations, to see what work they are already doing and follow their lead.
  • To get more First Nations people on the board of Unharm and support them to recognise the special skill set and the extra labour involved in going into a position like this.

This is just a start, but these interviews were hugely helpful in helping to define a path for us to better engage with racial justice. I want to thank everyone who took part in an interview and helped us start making the drug reform movement bigger, and better.

Dr Will Tregoning is the CEO of Unharm.

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