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US cities lead on drug policy innovation

11 August 2016 No Comment

Australia could learn a lot from the fact that a number of American cities are successfully reducing the role of criminalisation in their drug policies.

This is something that should be addressed at the Drug Summit in Sydney today.

This cross-party summit, to be held at Parliament House in Macquarie Street, will consider the context of the illicit drug policy and evaluate its efficacy. In particular, the summit will debate the merits of harm-minimisation and highlight new strategies to deal with the scourge of drug misuse and addiction.

Seattle and King County in Washington (which 10 years ago was experiencing huge, racially-charged drug problems) are currently pioneering a pre-sentencing diversion program for minor drug law violations and other low-level offences. This promising new program is known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and it’s something we should be looking at.

Instead of arresting and booking people for a number of petty offences, including low-level drug possession and drug sales of 7 grams or less, law enforcement bodies in two Seattle-King County neighbourhoods are able to immediately direct them to housing, treatment, education and other services.

The program is a collaborative community effort involving the Seattle city attorney, the King County prosecuting attorney, Seattle police department, King County sheriff, King County executive, Seattle mayor, State Department of Corrections, and the Public Defender Association. Also intimately involved is the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington – a non-partisan and non-profit organisation that pursues its work through legal and legislative advocacy, community outreach, and education.

The LEAD program in Washington is based on a commitment to a harm reduction framework for all service provision. As a consequence, it does not insist on abstinence, and clients aren’t sanctioned or punished for drug use or relapse. This is because it is understood that overcoming entrenched problems of drug misuse and addiction is often a difficult, painstaking and time-consuming process.

Unlike drug courts, which are widely used in the USA and Australia, the program does not require the presence of judges, court staff, prosecutors, or public defenders. Indeed as Lisa Daugaard, from the Seattle Defender Association, points out: “The resources saved from keeping participants out of the criminal justice system are directed towards helping [addicted] individuals.”

Leading Australian drug law reformer Dr Alex Wodak strongly supports this American initiative.

As he explains, in terms of dealing with drug addiction, LEAD answers a real need by doing two things:

First, shifting the drug problem from law enforcement bodies, which often get poor results at great cost, to health and social agencies, which get much better results at a fraction of the cost.

Second, this shift can be achieved without requiring major and politically difficult legislative changes.

So far, evaluations from Washington are positive. LEAD has already helped improve community-police relations, promoted public safety, and precipitated a fundamental policy shift in Seattle-King County. This involves a discernible change from an “enforcement-first” approach to a health-centred model. Specialised harm-reduction training required of all police officers in the neighbourhoods is reinforcing beneficial changes to law enforcement culture.

As a result of the above, many cities and communities in the USA are taking up LEAD.

In Australia we have known for decades that although treatment for drug addiction is sometimes expensive, it is always much less expensive than the costs of escalating incarceration. As Dan Satterberg, a prosecuting attorney from King County in Washington, says: “Jail is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with drug crimes.” That’s surely something worth talking about at the Drug Summit.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 39 books, including a memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Sydney Morning Herald, August 11, 2016, p 14 and The Launceston Examiner,August 11, 2016.
Also “Finding a better way to treat drug addiction than by jailing people.” The Canberra Times, August 10, 2016.

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