Sydney Criminal Lawyers: Former NSW DPP Nicholas Cowdery Calls on NSW Government to Reform Drug Laws

“We should all be accustomed by now to government promises – before and after elections – being broken or modified and this seems to be just another example,” former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicolas Cowdery said, regarding the go-slow on promised state drug law reform.

“Last year, I was assured by a very senior member of the government that a drug summit would be held in February 2024,” this state’s longest serving DPP continued. “Now there are rumours of October 2024. I have also heard it said that this may be a second term commitment.”

NSW Premier Chris Minns won the March 2023 state election with a platform that included drug law reform, to be initiated through a NSW drug summit.

This approach follows a successful precedent set by the Carr Labor government's 1999 NSW Drug Summit, which was considered groundbreaking for its outcomes.

Since 2018, the push for drug law reform has been prominent, driven by several drug-related deaths at festivals, a methamphetamine crisis, significant inquiries such as the Special Commission into Ice, and a global consensus on the failure of the drug war.

Minns' pre-election commitments came as a logical response to public concerns. He not only vowed to convene the summit but also enthusiastically promised his fellow Labor MPs advocating for drug law reform that he would legalise cannabis.

Cowdery told Sydney Criminal Lawyers that the “former government initiated a wide-ranging and expensive project “Development of a Whole-of-Government Alcohol and Other Drugs Strategy”, carried out by KPMG, which concluded last July.

And the former Director of Public Prosecutions added that the inquiry, of which he was a member, had ended with the intention that the government should use “the insights generated through this consultation as one input to develop its drug summit and the AOD strategy”.

“As a result, bearing in mind also the delayed and inadequate response to the Ice Inquiry report, I think the government’s current position of delay and obfuscation is lamentable,” he underscored. 

“I hope for better, but I’m not optimistic.”

Over 70 NSW civil society organizations, including key legal institutions like the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Community Legal Centres NSW, the NSW Bar Association, and Women’s Legal Service NSW, support the Uniting Church's call for drug decriminalization.

In response to comments that those advocating for drug law reform are typically criminal defense lawyers rather than prosecutors, Cowdery, who served as the NSW DPP from 1994 to 2011, highlighted his 25 years of experience as a criminal law barrister before his tenure as DPP.

“I both prosecuted and defended persons charged with drug offences, but with a preponderance of prosecutions of Commonwealth drug importation offences and the like,” explained Cowdery, who co-authored a 2015 paper calling for the abolition of the NSW deemed supply law.

The lawyer further outlined that the Perrottet government-commissioned report relating to the KPMG drug reform project he participated in last year, “seems to have disappeared without trace”, and the last he’d heard about it was an email that was singing the praises of its outcomes.

Some of the key areas it identified as needing attention at a drug summit, included the lack of culturally-appropriate services for First Nations people, a need for both person-centred and stigma-reducing approaches, as well as improving staff retention in the alcohol and other drug sector.

“My views about the need for drug law reform started to be formed in 1968 and have developed and hardened ever since, including during my time as DPP,” Cowdery made clear.

“My views weren’t shaped while I was DPP, they were reinforced by what I saw in that position,” he added. “The criminal law is ill-suited to dealing with drug use in the community.”

Prominent figures from the NSW legal, religious, and medical sectors have long advocated for drug law reform. Unfortunately, it's disheartening that conservative media can sway an elected leader with a few pointed questions, leading them to back away from commitments due to concerns over future electoral support. This inaction results in more avoidable deaths, hospitalizations, and invasive searches, all because NSW Labor is yielding to pressures from News Corp.

Cowdery made clear that his “ambition is based on logic and a wish to reduce criminal profits”.

“It is to see all currently illicit drugs legalised, regulated, controlled and taxed with adequate community support programs in place and the criminal law available for those who would seek to profit outside the legislated regime,” outlined Cowdery.

“I am a realist and understand that logic is not the prime motivator of policymakers and politicians,” Cowdery made clear.

“So, at the very least I would like to see a drug summit result in the decriminalisation of the growth, possession, use and transfer of all drugs in small quantities consistent with personal use,” the former NSW DPP said in conclusion.

“In addition, I would like to see the recommendations of the Ice Inquiry implemented in full, and the recommendations of the KPMG process acted upon.”


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