GLaD program lead Kate Seear recently joined colleagues from around Australia for a special panel event to mark the launch of the inaugural Global Drug Policy Index. The Index measures and compares national-level drug policies, including their implementation, against the UN’s Common Position on Drugs. The Index assesses and ranks the performance of countries across 75 indicators of drug policy, focussing on human rights, health and development.
In this first iteration of the Index, the performance of 30 countries was assessed. More countries will be assessed in the future. The top performing country globally was Norway, which scored 74/100 under the Index. Australia ranked fifth, scoring 65/100.
The panel discussed Australia’s performance and how it could be improved. Facilitated by Annie Madden AO, Kate spoke alongside: Professor Alison Ritter, Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW; Penny Hill, Deputy Secretary of the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs; Jake Docker, CEO, Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL); Associate Professor Odette Spruijt, Palliative Medicine Specialist; David Shoebridge MLC, NSW Parliament; Nick Kent, National Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia; and Fiona Patten, MLC, Victorian Parliament.
In a wide-ranging discussion, the panel explained that Australia’s performance may appear more impressive than it is, given that: only 30 countries have been assessed to date, and because its performance on one measure (the use of extreme sentencing and responses, such as the death penalty) was very good, lifting its overall score.
Once we drill down into the detail of Australia’s score, we see that it performed poorly on several indicators, including:
- Human rights violations – 59/100
- Decriminalisation – 33/100
- Harm reduction funding – 61/100
- Equity of access to harm reduction – 33/100
Kate explained that Australia’s lack of an overarching bill of rights or system for human rights protection arguably exposes people who use drugs to human rights violations of various kinds. As she explained:
There are numerous examples of this including: the use of mandated testing and treatment (including punishment for non-compliance); the use of ‘reverse onus’ provisions that deem people to be in possession of drugs and oblige them to disprove the presumption; and problems with the rights to life and health, both of which are undermined by grossly uneven access to lifesaving harm reduction supports, including for women, LGBTQI+ populations, and those in prisons.
Kate also shared some insights from our ARC-funded project on human rights and drug policy, noting that Australia has four jurisdictions with specific human rights charters that are designed in theory to offer rights protections. So far, our research has found that even in these jurisdictions, bills that would violate the human rights of people who use drugs are routinely proposed and passed into law by parliaments. These violations are often made possible because of narrow and outdated ideas about drugs. Such ideas need to be challenged if human rights mechanisms are to offer genuine protection to those who use drugs. The panel also discussed other ways Australia’s performance could be improved, including through decriminalisation or legalisation.