Church’s re-think on illegal drug policy explained at forum
This article is sponsored by Uniting, the Board of the NSW and ACT Synod of the Uniting Church responsible for the work of community services, chaplaincy and social justice advocacy.
“If our policies had been health-oriented, our son’s life could have been saved” (Marion McConnell speaking at the forum).
A forum for Uniting Church members has heard expert speakers outline reasons for the church’s decision to advocate for drug law reform.
At its Synod meeting of April 2016, the Uniting Church in NSW and the ACT backed resolutions to increase funding for harm reduction and drug treatment and to call for the decriminalisation of individual possession and use of illegal drugs.
The August 21 gathering at Parramatta Mission was an opportunity for Uniting Church congregational members, Ministers, school students and community service staff to understand and support those decisions.
The Moderator, Rev. Myung Hwa Park, acknowledged this issue is both challenging and confronting but expressed hope that the church can help call for positive change. “This is all about caring for the humanity and dignity of other human beings. Healing and reconciliation is our message,” said Ms Park.
She said the church’s stand came from listening carefully to the concerns of members and the church’s community services. One such voice belongs to Marion McConnell, a Uniting Church member from Canberra, who shared the story of her son’s death from a heroin overdose. She explained how the focus on treating personal drug use as a crime had tragic results. “The law dragged him away from the help he needed,” said Ms McConnell. This “nightmare” propelled Marion and her late husband Brian into more than 20 years of advocacy. Their message? “We must treat people with drug problems through the health system, not the criminal justice system.”
Dr Marianne Jauncey who heads the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross, the only facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere, agrees.
The centre, which required special legislation to operate, has supervised over 1 million injections in the past 16 years. While there have been 6,500 overdoses in that time there has not been a single death. “As well as saving lives, the centre provides a non-judgmental environment for people to seek help with their drug use,” Dr Jauncey said.
At the end of the evening, the speakers formed a panel to answer questions from the audience. Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW, Prof. Alison Ritter, was asked what benefits decriminalisation would provide. “It will reduce the cost of the criminal justice system and help divert people into treatment,” she said. Acknowledging drug use can be harmful, Prof. Ritter argued that decriminalisation would free up police time to tackle large-scale illegal drug supply.
Panel members stated that privately many politicians will admit “the system [of criminalising personal drug use] does not work”. They called for a broad-based movement to encourage a public rethink and called for Uniting Church members to be part of this conversation.
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