By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
At around 1.30 am on 27 March, NSW police spotted two people acting suspiciously in a Holden Colorado in an industrial area in North Wyong. And the officers proceeded to follow the vehicle into the driveway of an empty petrol station on the Pacific Highway.
A man in the passenger seat threw several items out the window of the car and fled the scene, while the driver remained seated. The officers then conducted a search the vehicle, finding six laptops, three mobile phones and six bank cards.
The late former NSW premier Neville Wran’s daughter was behind the wheel. The officers found 0.96 grams of methamphetamine in Harriet Wran’s wallet. It had been less than 3 years since she was released from Silverwater prison for her minor role in a botched robbery turned murder.
Ms Wran was arrested and charged with drug possession, goods in custody and driving without displaying P plates. The then 30-year-old pleaded guilty to the charges with a court registrar on 3 April at Wyong Local Court. The male passenger is yet to be located.
Spared prison time
Section 10 of the Drug Misuse and Trafficking (DMT) Act 1985 (NSW) outlines that “a person who has a prohibited drug in his or her possession is guilty of an offence”. And section 21 of the DMT Act stipulates that the maximum penalty for this crime is 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $2,200.
Schedule 1 of the DMT Act lists around 200 illegal drugs, plants, precursors and reagents. This section also lists the different quantities of each substance: from traffickable amount right up to large commercial quantity. These affect the severity of supply charges.
As for Ms Wran, she was fined $550 for the drug and P plate offences, as well as being put on a 12 month community corrections order for goods in custody. Wyong Magistrate Caleb Franklin said the drug offence was unremarkable and noted the small quantity of what was found.
Eastern suburbs coke crackdown
Over six nights in May, NSW police carried out Strike Force Northrop in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The operation that was targeting cocaine resulted in the arrest of 55 people: 28 for drug supply and 27 for drug possession.
Detectives were focusing on dial-a-dealer operations, which involve the delivery of drugs to residences, after an order has been placed via text message. Over the course of the operation, 290 grams of cocaine were seized, along with 13 grams of MDMA and 110 grams of cannabis.
But, this is just small fry. And operations like this are becoming increasingly unviable in the public mind. Hitting so-called delivery dealers hardly impacts drug supply. And this is especially clear when you consider that police have repeatedly admitted to large customs busts not even making a dent.
As Australian academic Dr John Jiggens pointed out, operations like the eastern suburbs crackdown merely act as a multiplier for the drug market. “Every dollar you spend on drug law enforcement always works out to ten dollars for the drug supplier,” he told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last month.
“The way that works is all you do is force up the price of drugs.,” the doctor continued, explaining that as authorities focus on a particular substance, the extra risks involved drive up the price, which then leads to international cartels wanting to export to Australia to cash in on the heightened value.
There are increasing calls within the community to treat drug use and personal possession as a health issue, and not a crime. Indeed, there’s a growing acknowledgement that the harms associated with the criminal justice system are far worse than those a drug like cannabis can cause.
Magistrate Franklin’s evaluation of the severity of Ms Wran’s recent drug possession charge reflects this changing attitude towards personal drug possession. And there are now retired senior law enforcement and law officials strongly advocating for an end to criminal sanctions.
Former AFP commissioner Mick Palmer said last November that “we simply can’t punish or arrest our way out of this”. He’s not only a proponent of decriminalisation, but he’s also pushing for pill testing trials, as he practically asserts that young people are going to continue to take drugs.
Towards the end of last year, Uniting launched the Fair Treatment drug decriminalisation campaign. This was significant in being a church-led initiative. And it was also backed by 60-odd prominent organisations, including the Law Society of NSW and the NSW Bar Association.
The Portuguese model
The system of drug decriminalisation that’s been implemented in Portugal is internationally-lauded. In 2001, the government of the nation that was going through an illicit drug crisis, changed the laws so that possession and use of every illegal substance no longer warranted a criminal charge.
Rather than being arrested and sent before the courts, these days, if a person is found with what’s deemed a personal amount of an illegal drug in Portugal, they’re sent before a dissuasion panel that decides whether they’re in need of counselling.
At the time of the change, around one percent of the Portuguese community was dependant on heroin. But, by 2015, the annual drug-related death rate was down to 3 per million citizens, which was five times lower than the European average. And drug-related HIV infections had plummeted.
The most to the point example of personal drug possession being a relic of the failing drug war, is when it comes to cannabis. This is a drug that has never killed anybody. More than a third of Australians have at least tried it, while over 10 percent of locals use it annually.
Since April 2000, NSW has had the cannabis cautioning scheme in place, which gives police the option of issuing warnings to adults found in possession of it. However, over 2016-17, there were still 16,765 cannabis arrests made in this state, with around 90 percent being consumer arrests.
As governments around the globe increasingly recognise the redundancy of cannabis criminalisation, jurisdictions are beginning to legalise the drug. Ten US states and the entire nations of Canada and Uruguay have. And later this week, the ACT is deciding on a bill to legalise personal possession there.
The NSW Greens is set to introduce a cannabis legalisation bill into parliament this year. The proposal seeks to establish a regulated co-opt style marketplace – which would be out of the hands of big business interests – and it also allows for the growing of plants at home.
NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge remarked in March at the time the plan was announced that “legislative reform that promotes safety, reduces crime and produces revenue for the state government should be a no-brainer”.