Billionaire Richard Branson has called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to decriminalise drugs in Australia.
Sir Richard, owner of the Virgin empire and a commissioner for the Global Commission on Drug Policy, issued the challenge to Mr Turnbull in a personal submission to the federal government's National Ice Taskforce.
The taskforce last week delivered its final report, pledging almost $300 million to the drug-treatment sector as part of a new strategy that steers focus from policing to prevention.
However, the cash-strapped agencies that provide the bulk of those services nationally claim they have been left in limbo by another 12-month short-term funding extension – which goes against one of the key recommendations in the taskforce's report.
Lynne Magor Blatch, executive officer of the Australasian Therapeutic Communities Association, said the announcement promises investment in treatment services, but those in the sector need to know that they are going to be funded over a four or five-year period so they can get on with the job of treating people.
"This has not happened," she said.
As the federal government's National Ice Taskforce was debating a bold move away from its long-held, hardline law-and-order strategy. Sir Richard last month weighed in with his own thoughts, calling for an end to "counterproductive drug-law enforcement" and to "scale up" evidence-based prevention, harm reduction and treatment measures.
In briefing notes forwarded to Mr Turnbull on November 12 via his Australian adviser, David Ryan, Sir Richard spoke of the "enormous momentum" towards decriminalisation which in recent months had seen countries, including Ireland, Canada and Mexico, flag radical shifts in drug legislation.
"Drug use should be treated as a health issue, not as a crime. While the vast majority of recreational drug users never experience any problems, people who struggle with drug addiction deserve access to treatment, not a prison cell," he said.
Sir Richard added that, combined with harm-reduction efforts, decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use would "save lives" because people would no longer "fear arrest and punishment when accessing healthcare services".
He noted that since Australia's National Drug Strategy was launched in 1985, it had "always prioritised harm reduction" alongside supply and demand policies.
"Sydney's medically supervised injection centre (the only one in the southern hemisphere) is an outcome of that," he said, adding: "The [ice taskforce] strategy under discussion now will guide drug policy in Australia from 2016 to 2025."
The taskforce final report moved to strengthen future treatment services when it raised the "current short-term funding cycles" that thwart "longer-term service planning and workforce retention". It added that such limited cycles also "inhibit" services from "committing to the longer term treatment programmes that would benefit many ice users".
However, despite a recommendation that all governments should commit to supporting "longer funding periods", last week's announcement offered the sector a further 12 months, past June next year.
Garth Popple, executive director of We Help Ourselves (WHOS), which runs a range of residential treatment programs in NSW and Queensland said: "This is the fourth one-year extension we have suffered under both Labor and Liberal governments. The consequences are crippling.
"How are you supposed to attract and keep quality staff on such short contracts? How do you renegotiate a lease on a property, to run your programs from? How do you secure a car lease for three years with six months funding and a question mark at the end of it? We want to build foundations for quality services. Instead, we edge towards a cliff every 12 months. The insecurity and anxiety is wearing everyone down."
A spokesman for Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash said the government was "well aware" the treatment sector needed longer contracts and more funding. "As of mid-2017, Australia's 31 local Primary Health Networks will each make local decisions on how to use this historic federal investment."
He added: "We expect this will mean treatment providers receive longer-term contracts and that many treatment providers will be able to expand their services."