Book and gavel

The case for decriminalising drug use

12 April 2018
Can drugs be used responsibly? Will Tregoning says yes, and that many people do just that. Advocating to end discrimination around drug use, Tregoning says in this opinion piece that people often hear prejudice rather than facts.
Illustration of Will Tregoning

Will Tregoning, illustrated by Harry Slaghekke.

The following is an opinion piece published in the Sydney Alumni Magazine. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of the University.

Chances are, you take discrimination against people who use drugs for granted, even if you have used prohibited drugs yourself.

Use of illegal drugs could be called normal in Australia. Most adults under 60 have used a prohibited drug, usually cannabis. As with alcohol, most people who use these drugs have positive experiences. That’s why people always have, and will, use drugs.

Despite the general perception of who drug users are, the truth is that wealth, employment and a tertiary education are all correlated with increased likelihood of drug use. This is counter to common myths: that drug use is a phenomenon from the fringes of society, and inherently problematic.

Those myths help perpetuate discrimination and we now live in a society where discrimination against people who use drugs is socially condoned. There are many legal behaviours, such as rock fishing or smoking cigarettes that are more dangerous than most illegal drug use. It’s not risk that defines ‘drugs’. They’re defined by the perceived legitimacy of discrimination against the people who use them.

People higher up the social ladder have more ways to hide their drug use. They have more discreet ways to buy and use drugs, and the advantage of not seeming like the stereotypical drug user. This means the effects of discrimination at a personal level are most acute among people who are already disadvantaged.

There are many problematic instances of discrimination by powerful organisations that should have a commitment to equity – for example, in healthcare settings, and by police, employers and insurance companies.

Discrimination promotes silence and secrecy. I’ve been close to people who have struggled with their drug use and I've seen how terrible it has been for them and the people around them.

If you use drugs, it’s crucial to learn to do so in a safe and positive way, and to seek help when problems occur. Secrecy and silence only make this harder.

The situation is similar at the level of policy. Honest engagement in problem-solving is precluded by the notion that drug use is always and inherently wrong.

Typically, solutions proposed for drug-related problems have one camp saying "drug use is a criminal justice issue" and the other saying "drug use is a public health issue". Strangely, the problem-solving always excludes people who use drugs. It’s like devising a road-safety program with no role for people who drive cars.

Such a position is largely a result of the criminalisation of use, itself among the most obvious examples of discrimination. It imposes a barrier between people who use drugs and the people who are working towards solving drug-related problems.

This was clear when, reporting on the National Ice Taskforce consultations in 2015, then Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash, observed: “From Lismore to Geraldton, police said the same thing: ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this – we need help from the whole community’.”

This statement came at the end of a decade in which the number of drug user arrests in Australia doubled to 135,000. This trend continues, even though decriminalisation is supported by most Australians and the World Health Organization, and drug user arrests are not endorsed or even mentioned in the National Drug Strategy 2017-2026.

What Nash didn’t say is that by legitimising discrimination, the criminalisation of drug use promotes stigma and social marginalisation. It alienates a big group of people with a great deal to contribute to the creation of safe, healthy and resilient communities: drug users ourselves.

Learning from the same-sex marriage example, we need a ‘coming out’ movement for people who use drugs. We need to show you can use drugs and live a flourishing, socially integrated life. We can change culture and laws through a movement that starts with visibility and defiance. And in the face of a discriminatory and failing drug control regime, we need to do that. Now.

Will Tregoning (BA(Hons) '03 PhD '07) is a co-founder and Executive Director of Unharm, an organisation that aims to make drug use as positive, ethical and safe as it can be.


Read more stories