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2021 was a year of drug law reform. What will 2022 bring?

Although 2021 was a difficult year for many, it saw some pretty major drug law reforms both locally and abroad.

In the USA, we saw Oregon become the first US state to decriminalise the possession of all drugs after passing a ballot initiative in late 2020. The move is sparking discussions in other states to do the same. In another pioneering step, New York City  became the first US state to open “overdose prevention centres” to allow supervised injecting.

In 2021, Scotland expanded diversion initiatives for Class A drugs, in a move that has been described by advocates as an acknowledgement of the failures of criminalisation in the country. 

Our always two steps ahead cousin New Zealand also enshrined pill testing as a protected service under the law. This is a testament to the wonderful work of drug-checking organisation Know Your Stuff in providing a strong evidence based for this much needed harm reduction intervention. 

At the end of the year, Malta became the first European nation to approve cannabis for personal use.

There was also some progress on the local front. 

The ACT continued its leadership in drug law reform. After 30 years of decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of cannabis, they allowed the growing and use of homegrown cannabis in 2020, and a fresh bill is before the ACT parliament to decriminalise the possession and use of small quantities of all illicit drugs. This bill has received a thumbs up following a Select Committee inquiry, so it is likely to become law.

Following the Mental Health Royal Commission, Victoria now has an opportunity to enhance the alcohol and other drug sector with the government committed to implementing all 65 recommendations. Very few were focused on the alcohol and other drug sector and there is still a real risk to the sector with calls to “integrate” the alcohol and other drugs and mental health sectors. More about that soon.

There were a few black spots among the progressive reforms: The NSW Ice Inquiry report, which provided an excellent breakdown of best-practice responses to methamphetamine use, has so far had most of its recommendations dismissed by the NSW government. And the Inquiry into the Use of Cannabis in Victoria report fell well short of a commitment to real reform.

And we’re still seeing the failures of the “War on Drugs” prohibitionist mindset reflected in Australia with a particularly egregious example in a highly stigmatising Australian Federal Police campaign for Halloween, and the announcement in December, so far with no detail, of Victorian Police ‘engaging’ with schools on a range of issues, including alcohol and other drugs.

But the wins last year for global drug law reform give us hope for a fairer and more evidence-based set of reforms in 2022!

If you are interested in the history of Australia’s drug laws, read our article in The Conversation on how quirks of history have led some relatively low risk drugs to be criminalised, whilst high risk drugs (such as alcohol and tobacco) remain legal.