The Greens have made a radical change to their drugs policy which leader Richard Di Natale hopes will reignite the decriminalisation debate and pave the way for the legalisation of recreational drugs like cannabis.
The party has officially ditched its blanket opposition to the legalisation of illicit drugs from its policy platform after members voted to support changes driven by Senator Di Natale at their national conference in Perth on Saturday.
Senator Di Natale – a former drug and alcohol doctor – says the global "war on drugs" has failed and the time has come for a dramatically different approach. He says he's prepared for the conservative media backlash that the new policy will inevitably invite.
"I'm ready for it. I think it's about time Australia had this conversation because it's killing our kids," he told Fairfax Media.
"It's time to recognise this is a health problem not a law and order one. We have to have an open, honest conversation about this and stop pretending we're winning this war – we're losing and losing fast."
The prohibition clause was introduced into the platform under former leader Bob Brown at a time when the Greens were under sustained attack from conservative politicians and the media over their liberal approach.
The new policy platform says "the current punitive approach to drug use has failed to stop illicit drugs use".
"The legal framework for drugs and other substances used for non-medical purposes should be informed by evidence of the extent and nature of the harm likely to be caused. Education is a vital tool in reducing both harm from and demand for drugs, including legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco," it says.
The Greens want a new independent national regulatory authority set up to assess and reduce the harm of illicit drugs – an approach that would likely lead to the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs like cannabis.
The body would assess drugs on a case-by-case basis, but Senator Di Natale says harder drugs like ice and heroin would not be legalised under this model.
The Greens also want more pill testing, medically supervised injecting facilities in every state and needle exchange programs in prisons.
The policy change comes after an exhaustive 12-month national consultation process with experts, doctors and law enforcement. Senator Di Natale also travelled on a fact-finding mission to Portugal, which decriminalised drugs 15 years ago leading to a decrease in teenage drug use, crime, disease and overdoses.
The money saved from law enforcement has gone into treatment, rehabilitation, education and prevention services.
"That has to be the next step for Australia," Senator Di Natale said. "We have to recognise that locking up people who use drugs is totally counter-productive. What it does is it creates an environment where people who want to seek help don't do it because they have to admit to doing an illegal activity.
"It channels people through the criminal justice system when they should be seeing a doctor or a health professional."
Senator Di Natale is co-convener of the Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform, a cross-party group of about 100 state and commonwealth MPs which helped drive recent changes allowing medicinal cannabis.
He says he's looking for new major party recruits for the body.