Massive Changes to Drug Laws in Queensland – Part 1

Over the last couple of weeks the Queensland Parliament has passed some of the most significant changes to drug legislation in Queensland that the State has ever seen. These changes have been welcomed by many, including health professionals, social workers and even the police.

The first change that is shortly to be effected in Queensland is the decriminalisation of small quantities of drugs, meaning that in some circumstances, a person possessing dangerous drugs will not be charged by the police. The second change is the re-classification of the dangerous drugs psilocybin and MDMA such that they can be prescribed by authorized psychiatrists.

This article will discuss the decriminalisation of drugs in Queensland and our next article will discuss the re-classification of psilocybin and MDMA and what that means for the community.

The background

For decades, and perhaps centuries, debate has raged about whether or not the usage of drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, is a criminal justice problem or a health problem. In order to understand the debate it is first necessary to understand the concept of ‘drug liberalisation’.

‘Drug liberalisation’ is an umbrella term that includes the drug policies of decriminalising or legalising the use or sale of prohibited drugs.

Supporters of drug liberalisation argue for regulatory regime for the production, distribution and sale of some or all currently illegal drugs, in a manner similar to alcohol, tobacco or caffeine. Some of their main arguments are that that:

  1. The legalisation of drugs would remove the need for an illegal drug market and as a result of that, reduce costs involved in law enforcement and the imprisonment of drug users.
  2. The prohibition of recreational drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines has been unsuccessful and that the usage of these substances is better addressed by implementing measures for harm reduction and improving the availability of treatment for addiction.
  3. The measure of harm should be taken into account in the regulation of drugs. For example, they argue that addictive substances such as tobacco, alcohol and caffeine, all of which are legal in most parts of the world, cause more harm that illegal drugs.

The main argument of opponents of drug liberalisation is that legalising drugs would increase the amount of users, increase the crime rate, ruin families and increase the amount of harmful physical effects amongst drug users.

The first country to de-criminalise drugs

In 2001 Portugal became the first country in the world to legalise the possession of small quantities of drugs. In doing so, they saw drugs and a public health issue and rather than jailing those in possession, they referred drug users to a treatment program run by a panel of drug experts, social workers and medical workers.

As a result, the government was able to save and re-allocate a significant amount of money from fighting a war and drugs and instead used these funds for the treatment of the underlying causes of the drug problem.

What has happened in Queensland?

On Thursday 20 April 2023 the Queensland Parliament passed one of the most significant changes to drug legislation in Queensland that the State has ever seen.

Following on from what Portugal introduced in 2001, anyone in Queensland caught with carrying a small quantity of a drug such as heroin, cocaine or amphetamines will be given three chances before facing a criminal charge.

Instead of being charged or arrested with the offence of possessing dangerous drugs, they will be referred to a drug diversionary program on the second and third occasions that they are caught with drugs. This program is intended to provide drug users with education and counselling and if it is appropriate, refer the person on for further and more intense treatment.

There already exists a similar program in Queensland, but this is limited to the drug cannabis only, and only in the circumstance that the person is not facing any other charges. This program is highly successful, with the majority of people being diverted in this way are never again dealt with by the police. These changes in Queensland will bring the State in line with Victoria, Tasmania, the ACT and South Australia, leaving New South Wales the only state that has not de-criminalised the possession of small quantities of drugs.

Police Minister Mark Ryan said the changes had been requested by the police service and would implement a “common sense” approach to minor illicit drug use in Queensland.

Mr Ryan believes that the changes will relieve the pressure on the criminal justice system and allow the police to focus their attention on people who are profiting from the suffering of others – namely those who are involved in the production, supply and trafficking of dangerous drugs.

Mr Ryan said the proposal was supported by current and former police commissioners, as well as medical and addiction advocacy groups. He said 17,000 minor drug offenders could avoid prosecution under the proposed expansion of the program during the first year of implementation.

This is a massive change to the legal and social landscape in Queensland and it is very exciting to see how society’s attitudes and views, and society as a whole, will change as a result of the legalisation of drugs.

Our next article will discuss the re-classification of psilocybin and MDMA, why this has occurred and what it will mean for people who will be prescribed it for psychiatric treatment.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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