Jeff Kennett: stepped down. Photo: Angela Wylie

By Michael Short

28 March 2018 — 11:00pm

Observing question time in our parliaments reasonably leads to the lament that our lawmakers are a bunch of dullard bullies. But, behind the closed doors of committee rooms, those same politicians collaborate to study evidence and generate policies for the common good. A fabulous example has just occurred in Victoria.

The cross-party law reform, road and community safety committee has released its Inquiry into drug law reform, one of the most comprehensive examinations of harm minimisation in Australian history. It is timely, coming amid surging realisation that the 50-year war on drugs is one of the most catastrophic policy failures in global history: prohibition does not protect people, it kills people. It merely creates a massive black market.

Protesters rallied in Victoria Street, Richmond, for a safe injecting clinic to be built.
Photo: Paul Jeffers

Decriminalisation and regulation of personal recreational use of substances is the most effective way to reduce harm and to bring people with problems into the health system, rather than injecting them into the legal system. The committee has recognised this, and has included it among the 50 recommendations the government will consider in coming months, ahead of the state election. Another sensible suggestion is for back-of-house pill testing at music festivals and other events. This would allow organisers and health professionals to warn patrons of danger. It would save young lives. Our politicians have long known prohibition of arbitrarily defined illicit substances is dopey and dangerous. That’s why they have finally endorsed a trial of a safe-injecting centre for adults in Richmond, a no-brainer initiative championed by Reason Party founder Fiona Patten, who also pushed for, and participated in, the committee.

Another sensible recommendation is the establishment of an independent expert body to counsel governments on drug law. This would depoliticise an issue that has been manipulated by hypocritical politicians who will tell you in private they know prohibition is stupid.

One political leader who has studied the evidence and changed his view is former premier Jeff Kennett. But, sadly, he can not resist politicising such a life-and-death issue; he has stood down from overseeing the safe-injecting centre trial in impotent, egocentric protest against the government’s shameful rorts-for-votes misuse of taxpayers’ funds in the 2014 election.

The biggest killers are licit substances – prescription opioids, tobacco and alcohol. I have three children and am not advocating reckless behaviour. The safest thing is to not take drugs – licit or illicit. But let’s get real. A venue full of young people drinking alcohol tragically leads to violence, road deaths, sexual assault and potentially fatal intoxication. Most people who take illicit substances – particularly the most commonly used one, marijuana – do so safely in the privacy of their own homes.

Portugal decriminalised drugs 15 years ago. There’s been a decrease in drug use, crime, disease and overdoses. Other nations are taking the same prescription, and ending proscription. It’s an approach that should appeal to progressives, libertarians and conservatives alike – progressives and libertarians because of their support for freedom, and conservatives because of their appreciation for rational, evidence-based policy.

Michael Short is The Age’s chief editorial writer and a columnist.