22 February 2022

On Wednesday I had the great privilege of speaking at Fiona Patten's press conference at Victorian Parliament House in favour of her bill to decriminalise the possession of illicit drugs for personal use (small quantities). We have had great coverage of the event with Fiona's, Baden's (our former client and now amazing peer worker) and my won words repeated around the country and overseas. Here is a transcript of my address to the press for anyone interested. The bill will be debated and voted on in early March. Spread the word and make a noise (including by writing to your local member at www.decrim.com.au).

At First Step we work in a very challenging environment made infinitely harder by the world’s greatest public policy failure. The greatest impact of our current drug laws is felt not by the recreational drug user but people who have survived childhood poverty, sexual abuse, poverty, homelessness and the absence of love and bonding. In my 20 years working in the alcohol and other drug sector I’m yet to meet a single person dealing with significant drug use or addiction, who is not using those drugs to manage their pain and trauma. Most of us, if we had the tools, would move mountains to stop a child being harmed, we'd leap Paddy-Dangerfield-like into the surf. At what age does a human bein g become unworthy of empathy and protection?

Enable police to direct people to education, treatment and support, instead of arresting them. That’s actually all we’re asking for. Yes, it will need resourcing, but can you imagine the funds that would be freed up from the criminal justice system. If you create a society where the most vulnerable receive health not harm, well that benefits every single one of us. Everybody deserves every chance to turn their lives around, and this reform proposal aims to do just that.

The law didn’t break Baden’s cycle of addiction and trauma. Treatment did. Welcome, empathy and hope did. And of course Baden's own courage and resilience. The evidence tells us that Baden's example is typical, and that the proposed changes to the diversionary powers of the police will not result in an increase in drug use. Just an increase in treatment and new beginnings.
If we could design it again, we would never build a system like this. Thousands of people in prison and the courts, and recreational as well as heavy users receiving criminal sanctions. So it’s up to the people in this place of great power and privilege to listen to lived experience, study the evidence and talk with the experts. To say “It’s not a priority”. . . well, that’s not an answer.

Be tough of crime, but let’s redefine what a criminal is. Because currently it’s 40 per cent of the population and that’d be funny if it weren’t also tragic.

Here is the press conference in full:

#mentalhealth #lifewithaddiction #firststep #healthnotharm

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer