Sydney shootings need more than a ‘tough on crime’ approach, expert warns

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<span>Photograph: AAP</span>
Photograph: AAP

The author of a landmark report into drug addiction in New South Wales believes the government’s “tough on crime” approach to a spate of shootings is destined to fail unless it dramatically overhauls funding for rehabilitation and treatment.

More than two years since Prof Dan Howard handed over the findings of his special commission into crystal methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, the state government is still yet to respond to its recommendations.

Commissioned by former premier Gladys Berejiklian after a spate of drug-related deaths, the four-volume report followed 14 months of investigations and called for a sweeping overhaul of drug laws in the state.

It slammed the criminalisation of drug users as a “profound flaw” in the NSW justice system and recommended the complete decriminalisation of drug possession in the state.

The attorney general, Mark Speakman, had previously committed to responding to the recommendations by the end of 2021 and, before that, by the end of 2020. Speakman told the Guardian the recommendations remain under “active consideration”.

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The government last week announced another increase in police powers after a spate of shootings in Sydney’s west and Howard, a former NSW deputy senior crown prosecutor, is losing patience.

“There has been a complete lack of political courage and leadership in this regard,” he said.

“It’s really disheartening I have to say because it was a serious inquiry. We ran for 14 months and we heard a lot of evidence. It was a special commission, not just some consultation committee. It was a proper, public process and they really are obliged to respond.”

Police have repeatedly expressed concern about disputes between organised crime groups over distribution and importation of illicit drugs into Australia, including heroin, ice and cocaine.

The NSW government last week announced the establishment of Taskforce Erebus to coordinate the investigation of multiple murders in recent weeks, and police have since touted a series of arrests in connection with the violence.

The government also started a new pilot allowing police to apply for drug supply prohibition orders against any person convicted of serious drug offence in the last decade.

The new powers allow police to search them repeatedly without applying for separate warrants each time.

Over the Coalition’s decade in power in the state, it has repeatedly introduced increased police powers in an effort to tackle organised crime, with patchy results.

Howard said the “failure” to address addiction “misses a major opportunity to reduce demand for drug supply, and so plays into the hands of dealers and traffickers”.

While he acknowledged tackling organised crime was “tough”, he said failing to deal with the drivers of addiction such as poverty, a history of trauma and abuse was a missed opportunity.

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“Penalising use and possession of drugs discourages persons who have a drug problem from coming forward and seeking treatment, for fear of being prosecuted and having a criminal record with all the adverse consequences that can flow from that,” he said.

While Howard noted that Speakman had made changes, including investing $31m to expand the state’s drug court to Dubbo, the changes had been “piecemeal”.

Howard’s report had labelled the state’s response to drug addiction as “tired” and “lacking in imagination”. He also called for the introduction of pill testing, the abolition of drug dogs at music festivals and an expansion of medically supervised injection rooms.

In a five-page interim response in February 2020, the government immediately ruled out five of the recommendations, including pill testing and the abolition of drug dogs.

In response to questions from the Guardian, Speakman said the “use of illicit drugs is a continuing scourge on our communities, causing serious health and community safety issues across NSW”.

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