Re-think on drugs

Long years of advocating for better drug policies within this Presbytery have come to fruition


Jon O’Brien, Social Justice Advocacy Coordinator, delivers the report to Synod from the Synod’s Social Justice Forum. Scroll down to the end for a link to the Insights article: Social Justice Forum – Drug law reform needed

The Canberra Region Presbytery has discussed the need for a change to our illegal drug laws over many years.

It began with a Zadok paper written by the late Prof Max Neutze in 1997 which discussed a Christian perspective on the Heroin Trial then being promoted by the then Liberal Chief Minister and former pharmacist, Kate Carnell. A Presbytery Social Responsibility Committee produced a discussion paper on drug issues which was presented to the August 1999 meeting of Presbytery. In 1999 the Canberra Presbytery supported the proposal of a Supervised Injecting Centre in the ACT. For political reasons, this never came to fruition. This is particularly sad given that ACT opiate overdose deaths now outpace the road toll in the territory.

In 2009 Rev Rex Graham, Social Justice Consultant for Uniting Care at that time, formed an addictions working group but due to restructuring this lost its funding.

In November 2012 Marion McConnell and Prof Bob Douglas as members of the St Ninian’s Social Action Group were invited to present at the Presbytery meeting. The main purpose of this presentation was to gain support from the Presbytery for two reports that had been published by Australia21 on costs and benefits of changing Australia’s current policy on illicit drugs. This meeting agreed that Presbytery express support for a call for a national summit, draw the matter to the further consideration of Synod and Assembly and draw the matter to the attention of all levels of Government.

After a period of stagnation the Presbytery Social Justice Group (PSJG) was re-established with a meeting on 18 February 2014 organised by Jon O’Brien, Social Justice Advocacy Coordinator for the Uniting Church Synod NSW and ACT. This first meeting was very well attended by members of several congregations from the Presbytery.

The PSJG chose drug law reform as its highest priority advocacy issue for 2015. A background paper, ‘An appeal for drug policy to be reformed to reflect the human dignity of drug users’ (view here) was prepared for the Canberra Region Presbytery meeting in February 2015. At this meeting proposals urging reconsideration of current drug laws were passed. One of these proposals was for the Canberra Region Presbytery to urge the Assembly and the NSWACT Synod ‘to facilitate the establishment of and support a coalition of community and expert groups which will press change in this area’.

The matter was picked up by the Social Justice Forum (SJF) of the Synod and the PSJG was delighted when it was asked to make a presentation to the SJF in December 2015. Marion McConnell and Bill Bush who both have had over 20 years experience with this issue as members of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform represented the PSJG at this meeting in Sydney. Their presentation was well received by the SJF. Following this meeting the SJF prepared a paper, Reducing the harm of illicit drugs: Supporting a better way, for the 2016 Synod meeting in April where Marion, Bill and Dr Marianne Jauncey joined members of the SJF to give another presentation.

It is most encouraging that the Synod agreed to the proposals put by the SJF.

Following the Synod meeting a statement was released to the media: Uniting calls for a re-think on drugs. The document can be read here.

The guiding principles contained in the document presented to Synod are as follows:
1. That dependency on illicit drugs is a chronic relapsing condition requiring a health and social response in the same way as other dependencies;
2. The fundamental objective of drug policy should be to reduce the harm of use;
3. Drug use and possession for personal use should not be a crime and drug users should not be subjected to the harmful procedures of the criminal law;
4. Avoidance of existing policies that stigmatise and marginalise drug users and serve to stimulate availability and use;
5. Measures fostering connection to families and the community are vital; and
6. Drug policy should reflect the best available evidence and resources should be allocated on the basis of measures that evidence shows are most effective.

It is the hope of the PSJG that congregations will support the Synod’s proposals.

Marion McConnell for the Presbytery Social Justice Group

The Insights article on the report presented to Synod 2016 by the Synod Social Justice Forum can be viewed here.