There is an overdose crisis happening in Australia. Is drug decriminalization the answer?

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

“ACT has led the nation in a progressive approach to reducing harm caused by illicit drugs, focusing on diversion, access to treatment and rehabilitation and reducing the stigma associated with drug use,” said State Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith.

A woman with red hair and glasses.
The ACT Health Minister said the territory’s decision to decriminalize drugs is a ‘health-focused’ approach to harm reduction based on expert advice.(ABC News)

Under the changes, which come into force in October 2023, possession of “small quantities” of drugs such as heroin, MDMA or cocaine in the ACT will be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal matter and will result in a caution, a fine or a health intervention.

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

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

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

In 2014, that number was 2,043.

A line graph comparing drug-induced deaths to road-related deaths shows that drug-related deaths have increased sharply in the past 10 years.
Data suggests Australia’s fatal overdose rate has exceeded 2,000 a year for the past decade, rising sharply above road-related deaths.(Provided by: Pennington Institute)

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

So while advocates say decriminalization will reduce harm to drug users, can it help reduce the number of fatal overdoses? And is decriminalization really the best outcome for drug users?

How will decriminalization help?

In August, Professor Mark Stoové of Victoria’s Burnet Institute said to reform drug legislation, including decriminalization, will 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 generates and perpetuates the overdose crisis through stigma and fear. Evidence suggests that people who avoid a criminal record have improved social, educational and employment outcomes. People who fear arrest, incarceration, stigma and discrimination are also less likely to access health and harm reduction services.”

Other advocates agree that decriminalization will remove barriers for those who need help with drug-related health problems.

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