by Catherine Harris
“How great would it be to walk into a bar, order a couple of beers and a joint?” It seems Simon Harrows, 22, is not the only person who believes the decriminalisation of drugs is a positive move. “Alcohol is just as bad for you as drugs. It’s just socially acceptable,” he says.
There has been a lot of recent public debate as to whether drugs should be decriminalised following the release of the Australia 21 Report on April 3 that shows laws governing illicit drugs are doing society more harm than good. The debate also focuses on claims the Government is losing the so-called ‘war on drugs’.
However, with only six per cent of drug use in Australia being attributed to illegal drug use, compared to the 81 per cent of alcohol use, the notion of a ‘drug war’ is questionable.
“Why would we legalise something for a minority?” said Gary Christian, the research director of Drug Free Australia, at a public forum held at the University of Sydney on the 21 May.
“We have laws on drinking and drink driving that have failed to eradicate the problems. What makes us think that legalising drugs will solve our problems?”
Despite this, there has been a push from the public for drugs to be legalised. Among those who believe this is a positive step is real estate agent George James who says he refused to seek help for his marijuana dependency during his teens.
“I’d see my friends drinking and some would get aggressive and start fights, push their girlfriends around, gamble away their money at the pub,” he says. “The mates who smoked pot were always so mellow and chilled, and I thought ‘That’s what I want’.
“However, like everything, smoking pot can get out of control, too. I couldn’t concentrate, I was spending all of my money on it, and there were times when I was withdrawn from everything,
“I became ashamed of what I was doing and didn’t want to seek any help, Decriminalising drugs will mean that more people are likely to speak out about their problems,” he says.
While there is widespread belief among some Australians that the decriminalisation of drugs will allow users to seek help and rehabilitation, youth social worker Amy O’Neill believes that the consequences will be dire.
“The social stigmatisation of drugs will still be there,” she says. “You can’t just change the law and expect everybody to change their mind set.”
For the past two years, Ms O’Neill has seen her fair share of drug use among young people and the negative impact it has on them and their families.
She says that due to the historical stigma attached to alcohol, especially in the Indigenous community, many of young Indigenous people she works with have turned away from alcohol and on to drugs.
“It’s almost like the kids are ashamed to drink, but have turned to pot instead,” she says. “If we make the use of it legal, then the kids will continue to do it.
“Yes, we can regulate it and tax it and hope that this will decrease use, but at the end of the day what we really have is more money that these kids don’t have, being spent on drugs,” she says.
For paramedic Penny Hawker, the decriminalisation of drugs won’t necessarily mean a decrease in use. During her four years as a paramedic she has seen numerous overdoses and drug and alcohol related injuries and deaths.
“It’s true that a lot of the time kids are afraid to seek medical help due to possible legal ramifications,” she says, “but decriminalisation doesn’t mean that there’ll be less overdoses.
“As paramedics we are there to treat a patient, not there as a legal reinforcement. At the end of the day people will generally call for help when it’s needed.
“It’s not about drugs being legal or illegal. It’s about education,” Ms Hawker says. “Young people need to be empowered and given the right tools to make informed choices.”