‘Decriminalisation must be on the table’: Uniting Church’s drug reform call

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Key points

  • The woman about to be installed as head of the Uniting Church in NSW and the ACT has called on the state government to show “courage” and consider decriminalising drugs.
  • Reverend Faaimata Havea Hiliau wants a drug summit to be held early next year, with all options to be considered.
  • Premier Chris Minns has ruled out decriminalisation of drugs in his first term, saying he does not have a mandate to do so.

One of the major Christian churches has rebuked the NSW government for its lack of courage on drug reform, and called for decriminalisation to be back on the table at a promised drug summit.

Reverend Faaimata Havea Hiliau, who will be installed as the new moderator of the Uniting Church in NSW and the ACT this Thursday, said the Minns government should keep its election promise for a drug summit and hold one early next year.

Credit: Aresna Villanueva

“Everything, including decriminalisation, must be on the table,” she said.

Premier Chris Minns has ruled out decriminalisation of drugs in his first term of government, saying he did not have a mandate. On Monday, he also ruled out pill testing, or drug checking, ahead of this summer’s music festival season.

His stance puts him at odds with some members of his cabinet, including Youth and Homelessness Minister Rose Jackson, who has said NSW is lagging behind other states and should join the “nationwide movement” to pill testing and evidence-based drug policy.

Reverend Simon Hansford, who is stepping down after six years as moderator, said he was disappointed by the new government’s response so far.

Reverend Faaimata Havea Hiliau, the new moderator of the Uniting Church.Credit: James Brickwood

“We would have preferred to see more courage from the current state government … especially when they were talking so enthusiastically in opposition,” Hansford said.

“We understand the vicissitudes of politics, but especially when the previous government had shown some inclination towards some progressive policies, I would have thought now’s the time to move in that direction.”

Opposition Leader Mark Speakman, in his former role as attorney-general, was one of the leading proponents of drug policy reform within the former Coalition government after the $11 million ice inquiry.

In 2020, the inquiry made strong recommendations including decriminalisation of personal use and possession of drugs, but the government was torn on the issue and did not respond for nearly three years.

Opposition Leader Mark Speakman was an advocate of drug reform while he was attorney-general in the previous government.Credit: James Brickwood

The eventual response included a large increase in funding for alcohol and other drug services, an infringement notice scheme and $500 million for health and legal diversion responses, but rejected decriminalisation and pill testing.

Speakman said the government should get on with implementing the Coalition’s response to the ice inquiry.

“NSW doesn’t need another drug summit, talkfest or review as proposed by the Minns Labor government,” he said.

While some drug reform advocates argue the summit is unnecessary given the ice inquiry, Havea Hiliau said it would be an opportunity to hear stories and evidence from experts, families and those with lived experience, and hopefully “embolden MPs to take action”.

“We believed that this new government would urgently deliver a summit,” said Havea Hiliau, the first person from a Tongan background to lead the Uniting Church in NSW and the sixth woman.

“It’s urgent. People who are experiencing drug dependency and their families can’t afford to wait years for meaningful policy reform and change.”

She said the current drug laws caused social harm, especially for young people and First Nations and disadvantaged communities, and NSW was trailing other states and territories in reform.

The state should adopt drug checking before the summer festival season, she said. This would involve a free service to chemically test the purity of illegal drugs such as ecstasy and cocaine, something that has been in place as a harm minimisation strategy in Europe for decades.

The Queensland government announced in February it would follow the ACT’s lead and introduce drug checking.

In 1999, then-premier Bob Carr ran a drug summit before committing to the trial of a safe injecting room in Kings Cross, which is run by the church’s service arm Uniting and is now permanent.

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