Lisa Pryor | SMH | 11 September 2012
Parenthood has made Lisa Pryor more certain our drug laws need to be reformed. When a child gets in trouble with drugs, help is a lot more effective than a criminal record.
"Surely having children of your own has made you think twice about decriminalising drugs?" This is a question I get asked a lot, as someone who advocates for drug law reform while being the mother of two young munchkins.
The implication is that your views should change once you become an upstanding and responsible parent whose drug of choice is caffeine, and whose social life revolves around rhyme time at the local library. As if parenthood should soften you with regard to your own flesh and blood, while hardening you towards the rest of the world, especially towards illicit drug users.
My answer to this question is "no, quite the opposite". Having responsibility for young children who will one day be young adults has made me more certain that our drug laws must be reformed and I'd like to explain why.
As a parent I would love to see Australia adopt the model of decriminalisation which has been working so well in Portugal for more than 10 years now.
Let me tell you a little bit about how it works. In July 2001 Portugal abolished all criminal penalties for using and possessing small quantities of drugs. When the police catch someone with a zip lock bag of pills or powder folded in tin foil, there are still consequences. The drug user may be required to attend a "dissuasion tribunal" where the seriousness of their habit is assessed. If the tribunal finds the person before them is an addict, they can then be referred to rehabilitation. And that's another key thing about the reforms in Portugal. They improved funding for drug treatment and made it more accessible.
What I love most about this model is that it empowers families to work with the authorities if a child gets into serious trouble with drugs, confident that they would be given help rather than a criminal record.
In other words the Portuguese system appeals to me as a dobbing mum. If a young person in my life was abusing drugs, I would feel confident working with the police to get help. This is exactly the opposite of what I would do with the system as it stands in Australia. I would never recommend a parent dob a child with a drug problem into the police as it is likely to make matters worse.
Australian parents are in a terrible bind if they feel a child is developing an addiction to illicit drugs. They may want to intervene, but most know that dobbing a child into the police is not the answer. Motivating a pot head teen to go out and get a job will be even harder if that teen has a criminal record which means they will be rejected out of hand by many employers. As for young adults who try to escape emotional difficulties by taking too many drugs, they will be haunted by even greater troubles if they are forced to spend time in prison with its accompanying traumas.
The Portuguese model is one of the alternatives to prohibition – along with the systems operating in Switzerland and the Netherlands – which is canvassed in an Australia21 report which was released on Sunday.
The report explains some of the improvements Portugal has enjoyed as a result of their bold reforms. Problematic drug use has decreased. There are fewer overdoses. Fewer injecting drug users are contracting HIV. Drug related crime has dropped too.
For these reasons and many more, parents like me support decriminalisation. This is not contradictory, nor is it new. A black and white photograph, reproduced on the back of the Australia21 report, shows just how long mothers have been fighting against prohibition. Taken in the United States in 1932, the photograph shows mothers and children campaigning against alcohol prohibition. In earnest uniforms they stand beside a car painted in slogans: "Protect our youth", "stamp out prohibition", "save our children".
The campaign to end alcohol prohibition was supported by mothers because they felt that when the trade in alcohol was pushed underground, it made it easier for young people to access alcohol. Legal saloons risked having their licences revoked if they served alcohol to the underage. But the illegal speakeasies which came with prohibition had no such qualms about underage drinking.
Alcohol prohibition was repealed the year after this photograph was taken. It is time for parents to speak out again.