Bigger prisons alone will not stop the ice epidemic

The drug ice, or crystal methamphetamine, is causing such damage to families and communities, that many are ready to contemplate even radical solutions.

In one sign of that soul-searching, the commission of inquiry under Professor Dan Howard, SC, set up by Premier Gladys Berejiklian to look at the ice epidemic convened a special meeting on Wednesday including former police commissioner Andrew Scipione to consider the option of decriminalising possession of small amounts of the drug.

For many even discussing decriminalisation of ice and indeed any illegal drugs is a bridge too far that only gives the green light to drug dealers. They say NSW must persist with its approach of catching users and hitting them with some of the toughest jail sentences in the country.

Certainly shocking evidence of the damage caused by ice will outrage many readers. The NSW Coroner for instance told the inquiry that the drug was a factor in at least 31 per cent of domestic violence deaths.

Because it can be manufactured anywhere in Breaking Bad-style laboratories, ice has taken over from heroin. It is cheaper than beer, they say. It is bad in the city but terrible in the regions, including in Indigenous communities. For example, in Western NSW Local Health District the rate of ice-related hospitalization is 40 times greater than the average in NSW. Drug users are often violent to others and they put their own lives at risk by sharing needles.

The case for decriminalisation is that the policy of putting addicts in prison is incredibly expensive and it is not working as a deterrent. Indeed, since about 40 percent of people in jail have used ice, prisons are like a school for addicts. The NSW Crime Commission told the inquiry that law enforcement currently is not “very effective in reducing the production and supply” of the drug.

The Herald is not prejudging the outcome of the inquiry which is due to conclude in January but it agrees completely with Mr Scipione who at Wednesday’s session said that something has to change.

It should be possible to maintain tough policing as a deterrent for drug traffickers while developing strategies that reduce the harm caused by ice and help addicts kick the habit rather than turning them into lifelong criminals.

Mr Scipione, for instance, endorsed some form of “depenalisation”, similar to the situation for cannabis today where police have discretion not to prosecute addicts for minor offences.

Mr Scipione also pointed out the stupidity of underfunding drug rehabilitation services while busting addicts. The rate of referral to treatment in NSW is about half that of South Australia. Mr Scipione said during his time as police commissioner even he could not find help for a personal friend.

There are plenty of other creative ideas that have been put before the inquiry already. For instance, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions has called for an extension across the state of Drug Courts where therapy is an alternative to a custodial sentence.

The inquiry is also looking at harm minimisation techniques such as pill testing at music festivals and needle exchanges to reduce the spread of diseases such as Hepatitis C.

The law and order lobby will no doubt attack any change to policy which accepts that some people will continue to take ice and that they cannot all be put in jail. Yet the inquiry should be encouraged to go beyond this tabloid logic and look for sensible alternatives.

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