Victoria politics: advocates and former drug addicts talk about new reform laws to be introduced to parliament

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It was a painful childhood that caused one 11-year-old girl to turn to drugs but there was one treatment that saved her life.

Isabella Copeland was just 11 years old when she turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the sting of a painful childhood.

The concoctions made her heart hurt less and gave her “a moment to breathe” and “a reprieve” from the tough cards she had been dealt up to that moment.

The substance use initially helped her deal with her emotions in the only way she knew how, following a tumultuous upbringing and unstable family life.

“I was having a really difficult time, so that was kind of my numbing agent, it helped me get through my life,” she said.

“But like so many people, stealing was ultimately how I funded by substance use.”

Her first brush with the law came around the age of 13 when she was caught shoplifting and was arrested.

Already deep into the lifestyle, she had previously been caught with illicit substances and given a warning, but was this time put on a five-year good behaviour bond.

But just three years into the bond Isabella was caught stealing again, breaking a pact that was keeping her out of juvenile detention.

“I was very vulnerable at that point in my life and I wasn’t really careful at all anymore, my addictions had really taken over and I was going through a lot,” she said of the time.

Her fate was placed in the hands of a Melbourne police officer who had read her background and noticed a pattern in her offending – moments where she was most vulnerable.

“I will never forget that police officer until the day I die – someone who had an understanding of the emotional aspect of using and he really saw how sad I was,” Ms Copeland, now in her early 30s, said.

“The sergeant I sat down with gave me a real talking to, he said this is a very rare chance that we’re giving you, basically they gave me one last shot and I took it.

“I didn’t end up in juvi and I can’t even put into words how much that saved my life.”

The counselling and rehabilitation was life changing for Isabella who went on to work with disadvantaged youth as an adult.

She said she believed had she gone into juvenile detention it would have set her life on a collision course with the criminal justice system, and she may not be where she is today.

“I totally believe if I had’ve gone into juvi I would’ve learnt strategies and gotten better at what I did, I could’ve been introduced to new drugs,” she said.

“You learn how to become a better criminal, you learn how to get away with things, and you get new connections.

“I don’t believe it helps your recovery or life in any way, shape or form and I don’t think I’d be here today if I hadn’t had that opportunity.”

A Victorian MP has introduced legislation that intends to change the fate of offenders like Ms Copeland, giving them a chance at treatment over conviction.

While discretion is often up to the individual officer, Reason Party MP Fiona Patten claims there are still far too many people being handed convictions after only minor drug offences.

Under new legislation, that will be debated in Parliament next month, people caught using or in possession of small quantities of drugs would avoid criminal conviction and instead be diverted to treatment programs.

Ms Patten’s decision to thrust the issue into back into the spotlight has reignited a fierce debate, despite the Victorian Government insisting it would not support the radical legislation.

“It creates an economy for criminal activity and we have no plans to change the existing system,” Treasurer Tim Pallas said last week.

It offered a rare moment for Labor and the opposition to unite on one of few topics they agree on – drugs, in any form, is bad for the community.

Shadow police Minister Brad Battin said his party’s decision to not support the legislation wasn’t about a tough on crime approach.

As a former police officer in Dandenong and Melbourne’s CBD, Mr Battin worked on the streets through the state’s heroin and ice epidemics which he said led to avoidable deaths and unsafe communities.

He feared the proposed legislation was softening a complex issue.

“If we start to say that drugs are okay, which is effectively the message this is sending, it’ll create long term issues,” he said.

“We have to say to the next generation that it’s not okay to have them.”

According to official figures, 26,000 people were charged and convicted for possession in the past year – equating to 72 people per day.

Figures from Victoria Police estimate the cost of illicit drugs to society is at $8.2 billion per year, placing a burden on law enforcement and the courts.

Mr Battin argued new legislation would still require resources.

“We already have a system here where many are diverted to treatment programs through the courts, and they don’t end up with criminal charges.”

The legislation will be introduced as a way to reduce the harm caused by drugs on the individuals who choose to take them.

Ms Patten has said the aim of the proposed laws is to save lives – by treating drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one.

Retired NSW Police superintendent and a Director of Harm Reduction Australia Frank Hansen said current policies in Australia were doing more harm than good.

“You’ve got the trauma of the courts, the trauma of the intervention of police,” he said.

“We’ve affected so many young people with the prosecution of minor drug offences, offences that affect a young person for the rest of their lives.

“You’re also tying up the police, the whole judicial system, legal services – you’ve got a whole raft of people that become involved when somewhere along the way there could’ve been a simple referral to treatment.”

Having worked for 15 years in drug law enforcement Mr Hansen saw the impact the issue was having on individuals, initially starting out in the drug squad before moving up to dealing with traffickers.

He said he began to develop a clearer understanding of the issue as he spent more time around those committing the crimes.

“You definitely saw the fallout, and I don’t think the cops or the courts are going to solve it,” he said.

“Over time I saw that the drug was not the problem, there were underlying problems that led to drug abuse.

“We’ve been prosecuting people for so many years but have we actually reduced drug use? Continuing to prosecute does not solve the problem.”

Internationally, countries including Denmark, France, Germany, Norway and Portugal have adopted some form of decriminalisation.

Official studies have reported decreases in the rates of young and problematic users and less pressure on the justice system, but there has been no decline overall in user rates.

While there has been small steps towards drug reform in Australia, advocates say it may take years before any real changes are made.

Ms Copeland, who as an adult became a youth social worker, said the police officer’s decision to send her to treatment had saved her life.

“Counselling and rehab was absolutely life changing and I became a different person, so I can’t thank that one police officer enough for knowing that I needed help,” she said.

“I don’t think I’d be here today if I hadn’t had that opportunity.”

Originally published as Victoria’s ‘radical’ new drug laws idea stirs fierce debate


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