In little over two month's time, possession and use of small amounts of the most commonly used illicit drugs will be decriminalised in the Australian Capital Territory. This change in territory law passed late last year is designed to reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system for minor drug offences and divert them into support services rather than face criminal prosecution.
This means anyone in personal possession of any kind of illicit substance including cannabis, methamphetamines, MDMA, or heroin will no longer be exposed to potential prison sentences and instead may be issued a caution, a $100 fine or referred to an illicit drug diversion program.
This approach is similar to that adopted in Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalised since 2000. While this move at the time was criticised by many, by adopting a harm minimisation approach rather than criminalisation, they have also seen a ‘significant reduction’ in problematic drug use, as well as a corresponding reduction in HIV+ and Hepatitis infections attributed to injecting drug use.
With the focus of the ACT government’s is on diverting offenders into education and training programs for those wanting to reduce or cease their drug use, it is somewhat difficult to predict the exact impact of this policy will have on the demand for counselling services in the ACT.
While the ACT currently has a range of private and publicly funded counselling and rehabilitation services to help people with drug addiction, these services struggle to meet with current demand and the expectation is that this will only increase as the number of people being referred to counselling.
As these policies continue to evolve, it's crucial for counselling services and mental health professionals to prepare for an increase in demand for their services and adapt their approaches to effectively support individuals dealing with addiction in this rapidly changing landscape.