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After same-sex marriage, we might reconsider our position on drugs

16 January 2018 223 views No Comment


As we well know, last November the Australian Bureau of Statistics announced that almost 80 per cent of Australian voters had taken part in a national survey regarding marriage equality, with almost 62 per cent indicating support. This paved the way for federal parliament to pass the historic same-sex marriage bill last month.

Last October, in an important advance for drug reform, Labor Premier Daniel Andrews announced the Victorian government had approved a trial of a medically supervised injecting centre in inner-city Richmond. This follows the successful establishment in 2001 of such a centre in Kings Cross, Sydney, by the Uniting Church and the NSW government.

This leads me to ponder: is there any connection between sex law reform and drug law reform?

In 1895 Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour for having sex with another man. In 1952, also in England, Alan Turing, who had played a major role in cracking the Nazi Enigma code, thereby shortening World War II by about two years, and who contributed substantially to the development of computers, pleaded guilty to having sex with another man. He was given a choice of a prison sentence or taking female sex hormones. Turing chose to take the hormones but found the side-effects unbearable and committed suicide by biting into an apple laced with cyanide.

Turing’s suicide was among the incidents that fed into Britain’s 1957 Wolfenden report, which recommended that sex between consenting adults in private should not attract criminal sanctions.

In 2004, the Blair Labour government established civil unions for same-sex couples. In 2015, the Cameron Conservative government approved same-sex marriage. In 2001, The Netherlands became the first country in the world to approve marriage equality. Now that Australia has legislated marriage equality, we have become the 26th country to do so.

Until 1973, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a disease. After 1973, DSM regarded homosexuality as a biologically determined lifestyle.

Until recent decades, clinicians in Australia still offered “treatment” for people who were uncomfortable about being attracted to members of the same sex.

In many countries, drug laws are also starting to be revised — with the emphasis switching from a concentration on the criminal justice system to much more of a health and society approach. Eight of the 50 American states, accounting for more than 20 per cent of the national population, have approved regulating recreational cannabis. Last year, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate the sale and distribution of cannabis, and this year Canada will become the first G7 country to do so.

Importantly, on January 1 California legalised the large-scale sale of marijuana for recreational use, with all profits going to the government.

The state punishing its citizens for wrongdoing is almost always taken very seriously. Contrary to some contemporary opinion, parliaments usually work hard and diligently and are given considerable resources to approve laws.

Considerable resources are also provided to the police, courts and prisons to identify, assess and, ­if necessary, punish criminal behaviour.

Laws and punishment for crimes that involve violence against another person tend to be stable over time within a single jurisdiction and vary little between jurisdictions. In contrast, laws and punishment regarding behaviours defined as criminal that involve consensual acts between two or more consenting adults, such as homosexuality, and the buying and selling of sex and illicit drug use, tend to be unstable over time within a single jurisdiction and vary considerably between jurisdictions.

It is clear that the attitude of the heterosexual majority to a minority who are attracted to the same sex has changed radically in recent years. With some striking exceptions, the notion of the majority punishing people with minority same-sex preference is now regarded by most members of the community as utterly unjustified, even barbaric. Throughout the Western world citizens are becoming less comfortable about the ­majority punishing members of its community with minority drug preferences (assuming no innocent bystanders have been hurt). If the community reaches the point where the majority no longer wishes to punish people with minority drug tastes (absent harm to others), then the question becomes: how, with least harm to all, can we cater to drug demand?

Some may argue that homosexuality and drug use are different phenomena. Homosexuality is an innate characteristic a significant minority of individuals happen to possess. In contrast, drug use involves the voluntary decision to experiment and then continue with its use, even though over time drug use for a significant percentage of the population becomes less controlled, more involuntary, and often addictive.

The Canadian High Court recently decided that if governments are obliged to provide high-quality prevention and treatment for people who use legal drugs injudiciously and have developed or are at risk of serious medical and social complications, then the same obligation applies equally to those who consume illegal drugs injudiciously.

The Western world as a whole is moving from making moral judgments about the behaviour of minorities to more pragmatic and effective responses, which are at the same time more respectful of the autonomy of all citizens. Surely we in Australia should also be moving in this same sensible direction?

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and is the author of ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Australian, January 16, 2018, p 10.

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