In November 2018, to much fanfare, the New South Wales Government established the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug "Ice". 

Three years later, we still do not have a comprehensive response from the Government. 

The inquiry, led by Professor Dan Howard, SC, was established to report on the prevalence and impact of the drug on our communities and to consider ways to stop its manufacture. It received 250 submissions and heard from experts, community leaders and people in the community with lived experience of illicit drug use. The inquiry made 109 recommendations, positing a raft of harmreduction reforms. 

In February 2020 the Government issued an interim response ruling out five key recommendations and saying it would formally respond to the inquiry by mid-2021—we are now in November. Of course, we know that some of the delay can be sheeted to COVID-19 and the pressures it has placed on both our mental health and political systems, but the pandemic has also exacerbated many of the harms in our community caused by ice. For vulnerable people who use illicit drugs, COVID has presented additional barriers.

A study by the University of New South Wales has shown that:

… people who use drugs may also be particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 due to underlying health issues, stigma, social marginalisation and higher economic and social vulnerabilities, including a lack of access to housing and health care.

Many of the protective factors that support vulnerable people have been limited or absent throughout the lockdown. For many, stigma around drug use and a history of negative interactions with healthcare providers has contributed to greater health care hesitancy, meaning they are less likely to seek assistance or treatment if they show COVID-19 symptoms.

At the same time, COVID has constrained healthcare providers and organisations, with limited contact, deployment of staff and of course growing demand. Still these organisations have done vital work, shifting focus and modes of delivery—including offering mail order needle and syringe programs—and continuing to turn up each and every day to help the people they care for.

The pressure on these organisations and the people they assist has been immense. It is clear that what they and the community need is certainty when it comes to how the Government plans to respond to illicit drug use into the future. It has been reported that the Attorney General is preparing to introduce a new scheme, based on the Cannabis Cautioning Scheme, that expands the current system of fines handed out at music festivals for possessing small quantities of recreational drugs.

This is welcome news that recognises a purely punitive approach is unlikely to achieve different results to what has been achieved in the past. Diverting drug users out of the criminal justice system and into treatment recognises that we cannot simply continue to try and arrest our way out of the challenges posed by illicit drug use.

I note the Premier is reported to be "backing" the reforms, saying drug law reform has "sat in the too hard basket for too long". This, too, is a very welcome development. As members will know, I have long argued for an approach to illicit drug use rooted in evidence, compassion and pragmatism.

For diversion to work, it must apply to all people and to all drugs.

It must also be accompanied by significant increases in funding for alcohol and other drug treatment, lest an already overburdened system be flooded without additional resources.

And it must recognise that not all illicit drug users necessarily require treatment.

We must be open-minded and consider other opportunities within the health system to assist people to address illicit drug use without applying a one‑size‑fits‑all approach.

The ice inquiry was a far-reaching inquiry and 109 recommendations were made. Like many in the community, I was disappointed that the New South Wales Government was quick to rule out five recommendations in its interim response, including establishing additional medically supervised injecting centres; recommendations on drug checking, including pill testing at music festivals; ceasing the use of drug detection dogs; and providing needle and syringe programs in correctional centres. There is clear evidence for acting on each of these recommendations.

I note the commissioner has expressed disappointment and anger at the delay in the Government's response and the reasoning behind its decision to rule out these considered recommendations.

To be clear, decriminalising illicit drug use does not equal legalisation, nor does it weaken a hard line criminal approach to manufacturing and sale of illicit drug use. Much will be made of whether the proposal reported to be coming from the Government to introduce a diversion scheme for illicit drug use is tantamount to decriminalisation. It is not. We wait with open minds and open hearts for the Government's response.

We know that we need to move towards a compassionate, pragmatic and health-focused approach that is needed more than ever.