Drugs: Should some be decriminalised?

Maybe it was the surfer hat that left people confused about whether to take robber Shane Nathan Johnson seriously.

Maybe it was the Speed Racer children’s backpack he carried. Wouldn’t a robber carry something ... tougher? If it had to be a backpack, wouldn’t something in jungle camouflage colours send a more threatening message?

Quite possibly it was the poor imitation of an American rapper accent that made even his victims at the Gorokan post office in August 2010 doubt whether Johnson, then 34, was really trying to rob the place.

Which is why he had to insist he wasn’t joking, despite the stocking over his face and the hand in his jacket pocket, with something pointed ominously at the post office owner and his daughter standing behind the counter.

‘‘This is a stick-up,’’ he said. The owner and his daughter looked at him, but didn’t respond.

‘‘I’m serious. This is a stick-up.’’

It might have been the unlikelihood of an apparent armed robbery at that time of day that froze them. It was shortly after 11am. There were shoppers wandering along the footpath outside, but only a few seconds earlier a post office regular had entered, looked around, and called out to the owner ‘‘Jeez it’s quiet in here today.’’

Which made the robbery ironic under the circumstances.

Johnson became agitated. What was wrong with these people?

He jabbed the hand in the jacket pocket towards the post office owner and yelled: ‘‘I’m serious. Put the money in the bag.’’

The owner suddenly responded. He scooped up the money in the till and thrust it into the Speed Racer backpack. But Johnson wasn’t impressed.

‘‘Where’s the rest of the money? I want the money from the bottom drawer,’’ he said.

The owner later told police he was scared Johnson was going to shoot him and his daughter if he didn’t hand over the money, but when Johnson pushed for money from the bottom drawer, the owner replied that there was no bottom drawer. Only time-delay locked safes that took five minutes to open.

‘‘You’re welcome to wait around, but what do you want us to do?’’ the owner said.

Johnson fled.

A number of people saw him run away, including a woman who had entered the post office only seconds after Johnson, realised a robbery was taking place, and had already called the police.

An elderly man with a walking stick saw Johnson struggle to pull the stocking from his face. In the struggle he knocked off his hat which landed on the footpath.

As Johnson hurtled around a corner, the elderly man lifted the hat with the end of his walking stick, walked it into a nearby shop, and advised staff not to touch it until police arrived because it could provide evidence.

In the end it did.

Johnson, a drug addict who had been in and out of jail for most of his adult life, was picked up by police within weeks for failing to comply with bail conditions on a string of other matters.

In February this year, only a couple of days before he was due to be released from jail, he was advised he wouldn’t be going anywhere. DNA off the hat placed him at the Gorokan post office robbery in August 2010.

He will be sentenced this month for the Gorokan post office robbery.

AUSTRALIA’S judicial and jail system is full of Shane Nathan Johnsons. His long criminal history of possessing prohibited drugs, botched robberies, break and enters, obtaining money by deception, goods in custody, resisting arrest, assaulting police, receiving, attempting to take a syringe into prison, dangerous driving, assault, speeding, driving while disqualified, and breaching bonds and bail conditions is typical of his type – the criminal whose drug problems fuel a desperate life.

In April a group of prominent Australians including Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop and former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer released a report saying the ‘‘war on drugs’’ had failed, and calling for a fundamental rethink of drug policies and the ‘‘tough on drugs’’ approach.

The Australian Policy on Illicit Drugs report follows the release last June of a Global Commission on Drug Policy War on Drugs report, headed by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, which concluded the 40-year ‘‘war on drugs’’ had failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.

The global and Australian reports both recommended national debates on existing drug policies, while recognising that politicians were loath to initiate change.

Carr called for decriminalisation of some drugs, and particularly cannabis.

Cowdery, a long-time advocate of drug law reform, went much further and called for the state to legalise illicit drugs, take over their supply and end the ‘‘bizarre’’ prosecution of individuals for self-administered drug use.

The current National Drug Strategy, with a budget of $646million over the next four years, relies on demand reduction, supply reduction and harm reduction.

But critics like Mick Palmer say that no matter how many convictions and police investigations there are, ‘‘the end result is we make no difference’’.

Cowdery said the state needed to oversee the trade to effectively control drug-related deaths, disease, crime and corruption, which were magnified by illegality. Different drugs should be dealt with according to their associated harm, he said.

Prescriptions for heroin to treat pain and help wean users from addiction, and the legalisation of personal use and growth of marijuana, were the first steps on ‘‘a long but necessary road’’, he said.

IN the Hunter Region a succession of judges have demonstrated a willingness to consider alternatives to jail for drug offenders.

In 2008 visiting judge John Nicholson expressed dismay at the lack of compulsory drug treatment and rehabilitation programs in the region.

In 2009 the late district court judge Ralph Coolahan deplored the lack of options for drug rehabilitation, and noted that the Hunter was missing out on an opportunity to cut crime rates.

In 2010 district court judge Margaret Sidis said she had approached politicians to have drug courts made available outside Sydney. A few months later the NSW government approved a Hunter Drug Court at Toronto, at a cost of $3.7million per year.

The court diverts defendants facing jail time for non-violent offences from the regular court system to receive treatment, be monitored, avoid prison and break their relationship with drugs.

The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reported in 2008 that people dealt with in a drug court were 37per cent less likely to be reconvicted of any offence, and 35per cent less likely to be reconvicted of a property offence.

There are a lot of statistics around drug use in this country. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that 15per cent of Australians used one or more illicit drugs in 2009. About 400 people each year die from heroin-related overdoses, down from 1100 in the late 1990s. About 3per cent of cannabis users are apprehended each year. About a third of young Australians experiment with drugs.

The cost of the illicit drug trade in Australia each year is $6.7billion. The estimated health and other costs of alcohol consumption in Australia each year is $36billion.

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N March this year the Herald reported that Hunter children as young as 12 were using synthetic drugs that mimicked the effects of cocaine, ice and ecstasy. The drugs, often made in backyard laboratories, prompted warnings from police, ambulance officers and the Australian Drug Foundation which advised ‘‘extreme caution’’ because the effect of the drugs could not be foreseen.

A Hunter woman, Jan, knows what it is like to watch a child fall into the abyss of drug dependency and criminality; where every phone call or knock on the door can be the one that says ‘‘Your son is dead.’’

‘‘He’s 40, but I remember once thinking, if he makes it to his 30th birthday it will be a miracle. I really did not ever think he would be old,’’ she said.

He grew up in a large, relatively happy family. He showed signs of trouble at 12, and by 16 he was using cannabis.

He left home and lived on the streets of a Hunter town for several years. At 18 he received a warning for damaging a church. By 19 he was using speed. By 20 he was in jail after stealing from a house to support his drug habit.

For the following 18 years he was in and out of jail, away from his family, and using drugs.

In one incident in Queensland he threatened a police officer with a knife. The officer threatened to shoot.

‘‘He told me he wanted the police officer to shoot him,’’ Jan said.

Shortly after he disclosed to his mother that he had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest from the age of eight.

Jan is not sure how she feels about the decriminalisation of drugs.

‘‘I don’t think jail had an impact on [her son] at all. He would get out and do the same thing again. Most of them, if they’re on drugs, they don’t really care if it’s a jail sentence or a slap on the wrist.

‘‘The only thing jail means to them is that it’s a bit harder to get their drugs.

‘‘I don’t think decriminalising drugs is going to fix the problem one way or the other. He said he felt like a weight had been lifted off him when he said he had been sexually abused, and I think that might bring about the biggest change.’’

In 2010 the Australian government’s Institute of Family Studies released a report on the impact of child abuse and neglect for adult survivors.

A review of existing studies found a strong relationship between child sexual abuse and drug abuse in women. Men who had been sexually abused as children had a greater risk of drug abuse as adults, and were less likely to disclose the sexual abuse than women.

The institute noted that child sexual abuse victims may self-medicate with drugs as adults to deal with anxiety, depression and intrusive memories caused by an abusive history.

PROFESSOR Vaughan Carr, former head of the Neuroscience Institute of Schizophrenia and Allied Disorders at Newcastle University, challenged the belief that cannabis is a ‘‘benign’’ drug, and argued that in any assessment of drugs policy, ‘‘I don’t think you can treat all illicit drugs equally’’.

But he agreed that the so-called ‘‘war on drugs’’ has failed. ‘‘It’s time something different was tried,’’ he said.

In 2005 Professor Carr released a 25-year study which concluded that teenagers who smoked cannabis daily were more than 150per cent more likely to develop schizophrenia than those who did not.

He argues any change to the way Australians approach cannabis has to accommodate that its use by people under 25, whose brains are still developing, carries risks.

The word ‘‘benign’’ about cannabis use could more comfortably be applied to people over 25 ‘‘in small quantities’’, he said.

Public and political angst about illicit drugs failed to acknowledge the most dangerous drug on the market was tobacco, he said.

Despite recent publicity, there would be no change in current policy until politicians could see there was public support for change, he said.

A major poll last month found only 27per cent of people supported relaxing illicit drug laws, although more than half the people polled supported decriminalising personal use of cannabis and ecstasy.

More than 70per cent of people polled opposed legalising drugs, and supported tough penalties for supplying and selling drugs.

Australia will mark National Drug Week from June 17 to 23.

Shane Nathan Johnson will be in jail. Jan’s son is working and living in the Hunter, and dealing with the memories that drove him to drugs.

Also in jail are ‘‘Brother’’ Francis Orchard and Mark Allan Paxton whose ‘‘drug supermarket’’ flooded the Hunter Region with drugs until 2008 after police seized 38,700 ecstasy tablets, 355 grams of cocaine, half a kilogram of methylamphetamine, half a kilogram of heroin and 2.6kilograms of cannabis during a raid on Paxton’s house.

Orchard will spend at least 10 years in jail, and Paxton 17 years.

During sentencing Judge Stephen Norrish found Orchard was a man ‘‘prepared to use his friends, his children, his parents-in-law and others for his own purposes’’; who ‘‘foreshadowed significant violence’’ when his interests were threatened; and who acted on a daily basis in a ‘‘cold and calculated way’’.

Judge Norrish concluded that when Orchard leaves jail, possibly in 2023 at age 66, his prospects of rehabilitation are not good. In the ‘‘war on drugs’’, Francis Orchard is just one more life lost.

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