“I will make it very clear that the NSW Government does not support the recommendation to decriminalize illegal drugs. Drugs have no place in our society,” he said on Wednesday.
“We need to send clear messages to people across the state not to do drugs. And then you deal with people who are in the system, [and] we provide the care, support and intervention to help them overcome this addiction.”
The government has pledged $358 million to close health care gaps, more than $141 million for justice programs and an expansion of Sydney’s drug court from one day to five days a week. A merits program that gives judges discretion to keep drug offenders out of court is also being expanded.
It has previously turned down requests about pill testing, expanding the medically-supervised injection center, removing drug-sniffing dogs and piloting a needle and syringe program in correctional facilities.
The response comes nearly two years after the government broke its long-standing pledge to answer the inquiry before 2021 after a controversial “three strikes” policy sparked a bitter dispute within the coalition.
The resulting “two strikes” policy broadly resembles a pilot proposal brought to Cabinet by NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman in June this year.
Speakman said on Wednesday it was unlikely the “two strikes” policy would apply to the upcoming summer music festival season as the government is relying on advice from Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant and the police as to what type of diversionary support programs this is do would be offered.
“We also need to recognize the importance of moving people away from their addictions, away from drug use and into health interventions,” he said.
“It’s certainly not the soft approach. It’s an approach that, on the one hand, sends out an anti-drug message, but, on the other hand, is also therapeutic in that it gets people to seek treatment.”
Regional Health and Mental Health Secretary Bronnie Taylor said the $500 million package will support regional and rural cities where the effects of drug use, particularly ice cream, are most prevalent.
Associate Professor Nick Lintzeris, president of the Addiction Medicines Chapter of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, said the response was the most significant funding announcement for services in 20 years – and much needed.
“Things are a lot worse than they were at the time of writing this report,” he said, noting that a combination of increased drug and alcohol use during the pandemic and reduced services during lockdown had resulted in significant delays in service delivery.
Matt Noffs, executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Youth Service, the Noffs Foundation, commended the investment in evidence-based drug courts and urged police leadership to train officers to use discretion. “We don’t want to work our way out here with arrests,” he said.
Former Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian announced the special commission to investigate drug ice cream in November 2018.
Howard led the investigation and heard evidence from health and justice experts, as well as emotional testimonies from families and communities affected by amphetamine use.
While hailing the government’s response as a “good first step,” Howard expressed disappointment at the refusal to introduce pill testing or expand the medically-supervised injection program.
“Last year, 15 million needles were distributed in needle and syringe programs. Injection rooms have easily saved 10,000 lives since they’ve been in existence,” he said. “I’m sad it’s not expanding. As a form of harm reduction, we should definitely do that.”
Shadow Attorney General Michael Daley said Labor would look into the government’s response but indicated it would support any reasonable proposals “that focus both on reducing use of illicit substances and reducing harm”.
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