There is an overdose crisis going on in Australia. Is drug decriminalization the solution?

In October, the ACT announced it had passed legislation decriminalizing possession of illegal drugs. It is the first jurisdiction in Australia to do so.

“The ACT has led the nation with a progressive approach to reducing the harm caused by illegal drugs with a focus on distraction, access to treatment and rehabilitation, and reducing the stigma associated with drug use,” said Secretary of Health Rachel Stephen. -Smith.

A woman with red hair and glasses.
The ACT health minister said the area’s decision to decriminalize drugs is a “health-focused” approach to harm reduction, based on expert advice.(ABC news)

Under the changes, which take effect in October 2023, possession of “small amounts” of drugs such as heroin, MDMA or cocaine will be treated in the ACT as a health issue rather than a criminal case, and will result in a warning, a fine or a health intervention.

“This sensible reform is based on expert advice that a health-focused, harm-reduction approach produces the best outcome for people who use drugs,” said Stephen-Smith.

Drug-related arrests have skyrocketed in recent years. Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed there was a record 166,321 drug-related arrests nationwide in 2019-2020. This represented a 96 percent increase over the past decade.

But at the same time, Australia has seen a significant increase in the number of fatal drug overdoses. Earlier this year, the Penington Institute, the non-profit drug and alcohol research center, said the number of deaths in 2020 could exceed 2,440 once all data is collected.

In 2014 there were 2,043.

A line graph comparing drug-related deaths to traffic-related deaths shows that the number of drug-related deaths has risen sharply over the past 10 years.
Data suggests that the number of fatal overdoses in Australia has exceeded 2,000 per year over the past decade, with road accident deaths rising.(Supplied: The Penington Institute)

Data from the institute also showed that 2020 was the tenth year in a row where there were more than 2,000 fatal overdoses in Australia.

So while proponents say decriminalization will reduce harm to drug users, can it help reduce fatal overdoses? And is decriminalization indeed the best outcome for drug users?

How will decriminalization help?

In August, Professor Mark Stoové of Victoria’s Burnet Institute said drug law reform, including decriminalisation, would help reduce fatal overdoses.

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Is decriminalization of hard drugs the solution?

In a statement, he said: “The criminalization of drug use is driving and perpetuating the overdose crisis through stigma and fear. There is evidence that people who avoid criminal records have better social, educational and employment outcomes. People who fear arrest, incarceration, stigmatization and discrimination are also less likely to access health and harm reduction services.”

Other proponents agree, saying decriminalization will remove barriers for those who need help with drug-related health problems.

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