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Hazy Days For Washington State

The state of Washington in the United States of America has become the first state in the country to legalise marijuana. The move comes a month after the US election which saw the proposition to make the drug legal receive the votes needed for it to pass into law. Recreational drug users took to the streets to light up in celebration.

And there is another US state which will see similar laws come into force in the coming weeks. Colorado also voted during the national election on a proposition to legalise marijuana.

Under the new laws in Washington state, recreational smokers over the age of 21 will be able to possess up to 28 grams of cannabis or up to 450 grams of baked goods containing marijuana. Having in your possession, up to 720 ounces of the drug in liquid form is also legal under the law which came into force in Washington on Thursday.

There are however some conditions attached to the new law.

Selling, cultivating and giving away marijuana for free, even among pot-smoking buddies will continue to be illegal. And despite the public pot party overnight, toking on marijuana in public will still be verboten.

This begs the question: what has actually changed at present?

The answer is that not much has changed so far. The only differences for now are that you may possess the aforementioned quantities of the once illicit substance and smoke or ingest those products in private.

However, you will have come by the drug in an illegal manner and universities and workplaces will have the ability to ban it on their premises.

State authorities, under the law, will have until December next year to establish legal cannabis trading houses which will be taxed and licensed in much the same manner as liquor-selling businesses currently are.

There is some major uncertainty about the future of the laws in Washington state and Colorado.

The drug is still illegal under federal law and the federal government may well decide to override the two states’ laws, though this has not yet been confirmed.

It is true though, that the Justice Department did not move to override the Washington law before it came into effect and so perhaps this points to the possibility of letting the law in Washington stand as well as the path to legalised cannabis in Colorado being allowed to continue.

The US Government intervening and overturning the two state-based laws would however, actually be quite a good thing.

Cannabis and indeed all drugs, are substances which are harmful to the health of all users, especially long-term recreational drug-takers.

The drug Cannabis is responsible for bringing on mental illnesses which can have devastating consequences in the lives of those experiencing such problems and result in similar negative consequences for the community around users.

Legalising drugs, including marijuana, will not suddenly make them less harmful to the public. They will still cause mental illness in people taking such substances and those effects will continue to harm both the drug-taker and potentially members of the public around them.

And legalising drugs will not cut down on their use either. Legalising drugs would likely mean that more people, some of whom had perhaps wanted to engage in drug-use but did not partake because it was illegal, would take up the habit and this would not be good for both healthcare and crime budgets. When you legalise drugs, you remove the stigma which is behind stopping some people using them.

It is important to acknowledge that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is a battle that governments around the world are losing and will continue to lose in varying degrees across the globe.

But legalising drugs is no answer.

Even the most tightly regulated drug-use schemes will have their problems unless scientists discover a way to remove the harmful compounds from the drugs, or they discover some kind of way to shield the brain from the potentially very dangerous effects of such chemicals.

Whichever path governments choose, they are going to face costs. But trying to stop harm to consumers of drugs and those around them should be the highest priority.

Another Hurdle for the NDIS

It seems a bit odd speaking of yet more potential woes surrounding the National Disability Insurance Scheme on an otherwise very happy day for people with a disability around the world with the London 2012 Paralympics beginning. But unfortunately that has to be done. A new report has placed serious doubts on the price tag for a fully-funded NDIS . Therefore the future of the scheme is put into question even more before the launch sites in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have commenced operation. This would no doubt be a scary prospect for those with severe and permanent disabilities around Australia, their carers and families.

A report by the Australian Government Actuary shows that the initial figures put out by the Productivity Commission in its report into the establishment of a National Disability Insurance Scheme could well be wrong to the tune of billions of dollars. The Commission said in its report that a fully-funded NDIS in the first year of operation would cost upwards of $13 billion. The report by the actuary however, shows that the eventual cost in the first full year of the Medicare-like policy would be closer to $22 billion, that’s almost $9 billion more than the Productivity Commission determined the cost to be in their report to the Gillard Government.

That’s a horrifying extra hurdle that needs to be overcome in providing much needed, essential and coordinated services to a cohort that is all too often overlooked when calling for extra funds just to be able to do simple things like getting out of bed of a morning and out of the house to engage in the community.

Such a scary proposition requires a rethink of how to proceed with funding such an important initiative. Previously, the state governments, barring a few exceptions, with different degrees of vigour, have asserted that the commonwealth must do as the Productivity Commission recommended in their recommendations. That advice was that the federal government, to avoid a COAG bunfight with the states, be the sole-funder of the insurance scheme.

Particularly the Liberal state governments, but also the Liberal and National Party Coalition in Canberra toed the Productivity Commission line from very early on, saying that the feds have to be the sole contributors to the NDIS. Back when the figure was nearly $14 billion dollars, this wasn’t such a silly thing to pursue the government on, given what the Productivity Commission thought possible. But it would still have been a  difficult proposition given that the initial figure was not exactly small change.

Now two Liberal states agreed, after the conclusion of a Council of Australian Governments meeting, with much pressure applied by federal Labor, the press and lobby groups, to contribute some not insignificant funds in order to host launch sites in their jurisdictions.

The state and territory Labor Governments of South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT got onboard with the discussions from the very beginning, willing to put money toward such an important and necessary idea. They were rewarded at COAG, being named the hosts of the first three sites to see the National Disability Insurance Scheme in working order.

Then there was Queensland, the only state or territory, other than the Northern Territory, which was nearing an election and Western Australia, trialing a similar policy of their own, that wasn’t willing to stump up a single cent in order to be chosen to host another commencement location for the scheme.

Regardless of the recommendations, it could have easily been said back at the time of the COAG meeting of the Premiers, that the policy really needed agreement and an ability for all the states and territories and the commonwealth to work together on achieving this policy outcome.

Now, with the newly inflated figure being bandied about, it is absolutely essential that all the states and territories, in conjunction with the commonwealth government, are willing to put all the money needed toward a properly funded disability scheme.

All states and territories, as well as the national government must now work towards agreeing to put all of the money they currently contribute to disability services into the funding pool.

Then, the state Premiers and Chief Ministers along with the federal government must discuss and agree to contribute their fair share of the extra funds necessary to realise the benefits of an NDIS.

There is the possibility of instituting a levy to make up any short fall, but this should only be considered if both levels of government cannot agree to contribute all the funds necessary for the full operation of the proposed disability services framework.

It’s also politically risky for the incumbent government, with people generally not liking new taxes. But if all or at least a majority of states and territories can agree that a levy is a good way ahead, then that could go some way to ameliorating the concerns of the public in having to pay a new tax.

Particularly in light of the very contradictory statements coming from the federal Opposition over the NDIS, it is important that their suggestion of a multi-party committee to work together advancing the insurance scheme is instituted. This would give the Coalition no wriggle room to back away from a commitment to funding their part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme if, as many believe likely, they take the government benches in 2013.

Were such a joint committee to be established, it would also take the politics out of the equation which has infested debate over the scheme and ramped up in recent months. We all know who ‘owns’ this policy prescription, but it is so important that it should not be seen as something that the government and the opposition cannot work together on to achieve.

There are murky days, weeks, months and years ahead for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The future of the not yet rolled out scheme looks tenuous. What we need now, more than ever, is for our politicians to shine, to rise above politics or the very worst fears of people with a disability, so often let down by government, will again be realised.

None of the Political Players Are Blameless in the NDIS Political Game

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been seen since the Productivity Commission recommended its establishment last year as the best hope that people with a disability have had for their unmet needs, needs that are almost impossible to reach for some, through no fault of their own. It was received with great fanfare by the Gillard Government, with Bill Shorten a key instigator in the Productivity Commission examination of such a policy move. The hope was raised further when the Coalition outlined bipartisan support for the very important initiative.

But alas, as swiftly as the idea of an NDIS has come around, so has the impression that the solid ground the idea was built upon, the unanimous support,  is now cracking beneath those who have a disability.

Th major political players in this are threefold. First there is the commonwealth government, then there is the Opposition and finally the state governments who at present provide many of the services that would be involved in the running of the future scheme and who have been a part of the political discussion of funding for the important new policy.

In the uncertainty that now clouds the future of a NDIS roll-out no single political player, be it state or federal government or the Opposition is without blame for what looks at the moment to be a shaky future for the not yet realised scheme.

From the outset, the Gillard Government ignored the Productivity Commission recommendation that the NDIS be fully funded by the federal government, the whole $13 or so billion dollars of it. This leaves it to the Council of Australian Governments to squabble behind closed doors and also apparently in public quite openly over just how much each state can or are willing to contribute to the implementation of the program.

The second major player, the states must also take their fair share of the blame for the growing concerns being raised over the future of an idea that has has not even began operating yet.

Even though the ALP Government should have stuck to the recommendation emanating from the Productivity Commission report regarding the commonwealth being the sole funder, the state governments are not, regardless of what they say, without the capability to contribute to the establishment and commencement of the scheme, particularly in combination with the $1 billion over 4 years that has been stumped up by the federal government, no matter how meagre that sum of money is.

The Labor Government sticking to the Productivity Commission timetable for the construction, implementation and operation of the insurance scheme would also help relax some of the long-term funding concerns which look to be playing their part in destabilising the entire process.

The state governments are surely able to funnel some of their funds allocated to delivery of services that would be covered under the scheme into the funding pool for the National Disability Insurance Scheme so that this essential project does not fall before it even has a chance at operation. That’s not asking any state to search for any extra funds that have been difficult to find for many state governments in recent years, it’s just asking for an amount of existing funds to head toward a new idea and only when the services will start being delivered in their respective states.

The other player that is crucial, particularly for the long-term success of the NDIS, the side of politics likely to be in government and needing to oversee the full introduction of the scheme is the Coalition.

Things started well when the Coalition were quick to signal bipartisan support for a long-needed but not yet delivered policy response to the immense and fragmented costs and services that people with a disability have had to endure. But from time to time support has appeared to go up and down like a yo-yo.

Just yesterday at the National Press Club, the Shadow Treasurer appeared to be backing away on behalf of the Coalition from guaranteeing the future funding of the National Disability Insurance Scheme despite assurances from others in the Opposition previously that the NDIS will continue to have bipartisan support. This statement casts some doubt on whether the Coalition are fully committed to contributing to the NDIS including from late next year when all indications are that they will be occupying the government benches.

It is understandable that the Coalition will be cash-strapped through a combination of factors, but they have indicated from the outset their bipartisan support for the NDIS and must make it a reality. There are no shortage of options for achieving the aim of a fully-funded NDIS, even if they cause minor short-term political pain, think a small levy and/or removing some of the wasteful garbage spending that the government simply needs to get out of doing.

The Opposition must continue to commit to the implementation and operation of the scheme which they were so swift to support. If it means returning to the original timetable to make it easier, then so be it, at least then there might be certainty over the future of a sorely needed policy.

What is clear is that all the players need to reach a compromise, make sacrifices and work together better, though with so many competing needs at the table this is already a very hard task, but people with a disability cannot miss out again.

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