Australia is about to start a major discussion on decriminalizing drugs

A “national menace.”
A “national menace.”
Image: Reuters/Ralph Orlowski
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In 2001, Portugal, facing a scourge of heroin addiction, eliminated criminal penalties for personal drug use or possession. Fifteen years later, Australia, which has one of the world’s worst drug problems, will consider doing the same.

On March 2, senator Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australian Greens party, will host the National Drug Summit, to be held at the Parliament House in the nation’s capital. Last year, Di Natale went on a fact-finding mission to Portugal. He believes its approach to addressing drug abuse has been effective, and will present the case that Australia should follow a similar path.

Australia faces a “national menace,” as former prime minister Tony Abbott called it, in the form of crystal methamphetamine, also known as ice. Last year a “National Ice Taskforce” found that Australians were among the world’s biggest users of crystal meth, with the number of addicts doubling to over 200,000 in the past eight years.

The highly addictive drug, which can be produced in makeshift labs, has a devastating effect on its users. About a quarter of the nation’s meth users take the drug once a week, and the nation is plagued by a ice-related crimes.

Di Natale and others contend that Australia should shift possession of drugs away from the criminal-justice system and into the public health and counseling sphere, as Portugal has done. Heroin use in the European nation has been halved since decriminalization, as has death from overdose.

But as with Portugal, the selling and distributing of drugs would still be a crime, meaning the nation’s history of bizarre drug-smuggling attempts would likely continue. Border police have found drugs hidden in everything from car parts to printer cartridges. In February, authorities in Sydney discovered liquid methamphetamine inside thousands of gel pads inserted into push-up bras.

Other nations are moving away from criminalization for drug users. Norwegian courts were recently given the power to sentence convicted drug users to rehabilitation instead of sending them to prison. Ireland aims to decriminalize heroin and cocaine for personal use—and even offer treatment rooms—while keeping punishments for dealers.

And legislators in Australia itself appear close to passing a bill legalizing the cultivation of marijuana grown for medicinal purposes.

Lawmakers from the nation’s two main parties—Sharman Stone of the ruling Liberals and Melissa Parke of the Labor party—are co-convening the summit called by Di Natale.