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Filling jails with the traumautised – whether simple, multiple or complex traumas – should make no sense to anyone. We are filling prisons with the mentally unwell and not the criminally minded. Dr Richard Di Natale is right on the mark on the ways forward with the decriminalisation of the victims of illicit drug use and addictions. There is no greater legacy than to help improve the lot of others and this should be our focus. However, Australia is backwardly conservative on so many issues and simple mantras are all too often espoused.

I note that I am a former Greens member and in spirit since resigning from the Greens end of 2010 still support much of what they argue they are about. I challenged Rachel Siewert for the Senate spot which did not go my way. I am both a practical person at times, going for broke on what can be achieved where some difference can be made, and a radical on what needs to be done where anything less than radical change will make inconsequential difference and not improve the lot of others, not change lives.

I hope Dr Di Natale remains solid on the decriminilisation calls in regards to Ice and Heroin. He is not talking about decriminalising the trafficking, production and selling of these demonic substances. He is talking about decriminalising the use of Ice and Heroin.

“Rather than sending them through the courts, they should be sent for treatment,” Di Natale said on 3AW Radio.

Federal Minister Greg Hunt is talking nonsense when he states that decriminalising the use of Ice and Heroin “is a terrible and frightening idea.” It is only “frightening” if a Government has no intention of investing in rehabilitation and psychosocial support.

The United States of America has a criminal justice system that punishes drug use. They are filling their prisons with drug users, with addicts, with the most disadvantaged and marginalised. More Black Americans are in jail for illicit substance use and possession than for any other crime. One in four of the world’s prisoners are Americans in jails throughout the United States. Nearly one million Black Americans are in prison; that’s nearly 40 per cent of the United States prison population. The Australian prison population doubled in the last twenty years, with a significant proportion of that increase drug related low level offences. If Australia were to grant amnesty to prison inmates who are doing time for low level drug related offences, for those who got themselves in trouble because of addictions and if Australia also released the mentally unwell then there would be a reduction of half the prison population.

The evidence that supports the benefits of decriminalising illicit substance use and possession is there for all to read, to understand and to be moved by. It is not rocket science but what is difficult is educating parliamentarians. Plato once said that we have to engage with our politicians or we risk being governed by the dumb.

Decriminalisation needs to be coupled with greater investments in rehabilitation, in making rehabilitation accessible and a reality for people with addictions – to be treated, supported, validated; people need people, people strengthen peoples, doesn’t happen anyhow else. If it means families should have the agency to commit someone – a child or adult – then so be it, let us do it. Prison is not where they should be. In my long experience in working with people pre- and post-release and in guiding many of them into education opportunities, it is my view that in general people come out of prison worse than when they went in.

If prison doesn’t get them while inside, the prison experience gets many of them soon after release. The risk of death for ex-prisoners in the year following release is significant. The risks of death are even more elevated the younger the ex-prisoner. Prison is a potential cesspit for multiple traumas, composite traumas and aggressive complex traumas. The situational traumas of illicit drug use and addictions should not be compounded by incarceration. This tragedy not only hurts the individual but also the family of the individual, the impacts and life stresses accumulate. Abundant research, global and domestic, evidences the benefits of decriminalisation and of the reallocation of wasted funding in incarcerating people instead of helping people break their addictions and to validate their self-worth, to help them heal physically, emotionally and psychologically.

A former director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery has been pushing for the decriminalisation. He told AAP, “It’s extremely frustrating to see the criminal justice system brought in to attach criminal records and all of the trauma that goes with it to people that are not criminals and who are not harming society.”

Drug use and addictions should be seen as a health matter and not a criminal matter and only then can we move truly forward.

Tony Trimingham, CEO of Family Drug Support told AAP, affected families want decriminalisation and support. 19 years ago, his son died of an overdose.

“I’m sick of people speaking for us (and) saying families would not want decriminalisation.”

Psychosocial support and validation are imperative in helping people who have slid into illicit drug use, but the responses must be understood in terms of who it is we are responding to: an individual overwhelmed by expectations, an individual overwhelmed by a sense of failure, an individual overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, an individual overwhelmed by trauma, an individual overwhelmed by a sense that their identity is a liability, a family overwhelmed by trauma and grief – hopelessness, discrimination, deprivation, racism – the sense the future is bleak and unfair.

Far too many parliamentarians – in other words our nation’s leaders – have been pushing ignorant statements about illicit substance use and punitive deterrents. In general, the strictly punitive does not work, acutely compounds problems, making things much worse.

Society’s focus should be on improving the health system, on expanding it, in being there for people in trouble, focused not on risk factors but on improving and strengthening the cache of protective factors. Postvention responses are about prevention, they are about rebuilding the positive self while prisons damage the self and generally culminate in a dangerously negative self.

Di Natale’s courageous call for decriminalisation should be broadened to an urgent national conversation on illicit drug use, on treating addictions, on rebuilding lives, on repairing the criminal justice system and on improving the health systems. Di Natale is correct and the Australian people should not be cheated out of this long overdue conversation by the fast approaching federal election and the deplorable scaremongering that will be dished out. The impacts of ice and heroin on families can never be addressed by jailing their loved ones.


Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and is a member of several national suicide prevention projects and critical responses. He is also a prolific writer on the criminal justice system and custodial systems.