A Drug Question Finally Got Asked in Parliament

Alex Hamer

A month or so ago, we partnered with OurSay (the social enterprise working at revitalising democratic engagement) to crowd source a question on drugs and get it asked in parliament. On Tuesday, Greens Senator Richard Di Natale put the People’s Question to the government.

Illicit substances have been off the national agenda since early last year, when a group of ex-government figures released a report saying prohibition has failed. The Attorney-General at the time, Nicola Roxon, said the government would not even look into decriminalisation, much less legalisation.

With a federal election imminent, politicians are still afraid of talking about drugs, which is why we got involved in the project. Posing a question to the government in the Senate means it must respond with its reasoning behind a law or policy. We thought this was a good idea because there other governments around the world that have decided that complete prohibition of drugs was not the best way to keep people safe. Asking the public what they thought about drugs in the United States in Colorado and Washington State led to legalisation in both states, so we thought we’d give you a chance too.

The winning question, posted by Steve McDonald, garnered 1,532 votes in the month the forum was open. His question asked why the use of drugs scientifically proven to be less harmful to users and society than alcohol, such as MDMA and LSD, is still criminal when the cost of law enforcement is so high.

Here it is in full, but to summarise, McDonald asked: “What is Australia doing to address the current unscientific classification of various drugs and the resulting unnecessary harm and expense this is causing?”

The question received double the votes of the second-most-popular question, showing strong support for a push for a more scientific approach to drug legislation.

Amid the usual discussion of the government’s incompetence and the Coalition’s lack of policy details, Senator Di Natale opened his presentation of the question to the Senate with a remark on the state of Australian politics.

“We all know our democracy could sure do with some revitalisation at the moment,” he said, to the jeering of Liberal and National senators. The Coalition’s preceding question had asked whether the government thought its handling of the carbon and mining taxes had been successful. Barely half of the questions asked in the Senate that day were about policy, and those that were mostly about legislation already passed. This is not an unusual balance for the Upper House.

Senator Di Natale said projects like the People’s Question increase interest in parliament and prove a welcome change from bickering between the government and opposition. They also allow voters to set the agenda, he said.

Senator Di Natale directed his question to Senator Stephen Conroy in his role as ‘minister representing the Prime Minister’. Senator Conroy thanked Senator Di Natale for his question, and responded by explaining the government’s current drugs policy was about “harm minimisation”, but did not refute the scientific basis of the question.

McDonald wrote:

“The most socially harmful drug, alcohol (according to Nutt, King & Phillips 2010 published in The Lancet), is available with minimal restrictions. Yet drugs that have consistently been shown to have minimal harms, such as MDMA and LSD, are classed as Schedule 9 (illicit), resulting in the criminalisation of users at considerable personal and public cost for what is a victimless crime.”

McDonald is the Association Secretary of the Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine (PRISM) and a veteran of the Australian Defence Force.

He said MDMA has been successful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has suffered from since serving in Somalia in 1993. Studies in the United States and elsewhere have shown MDMA to be effective in treating the symptoms of PTSD, which include anxiety and depression.

Senator Conroy also expressed concern about the ‘legal-high’ drugs which have been available online and in adult shops for several years. A drug with similar effects to LSD was blamed for the death of NSW teenager Henry Kwan.

“New, psychoactive, substances are emerging that pose a serious risk to both consumers and the broader community, because little is known about their short or long term health effects.”

When we asked him about it, McDonald said he was disappointed with the response.

“Senator Conroy’s response was poorly informed. Tagging all illicit substances as ‘drugs’ really dumbs down the whole debate,” he said.

Last year there was a push by drug experts and law enforcement experts for the decriminalisation of drugs. Now-Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Bob Carr’s submission for the report questioned why police time was being spent targeting marijuana possession, which he labelled a “victimless crime”.

Despite support for decriminalisation from two former premiers (Carr and Geoff Gallop from WA), the former chief of the Australian Federal Police and state prosecutors, the Gillard government would not consider relaxing drug laws. It’s doubtful a Kevin Rudd one will be any different.

As the talking heads ponder the effect last night’s leadership spill will have on the election, it’s obvious policy discussions will be left behind. The race is too thrilling to look at the reasons it is being run. In his resurrection speech, Rudd called out to young people, saying “we need your ideas”. Whether he follows up on that is not certain. It’s up to you to find out.
While speaking to the Australian parliament on behalf of the public, Senator Di Natale asks, “What is Australia doing to address the current unscientific classification of various drugs and the resulting unnecessary harm and expense this is causing?” The question was posed by Steve McDonald of PRISM: Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine and was the most popular question during a public vote organized by OurSay. PRISM is helping MAPS work to start Australian research into treating PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.