The end of December is always a busy period in the world of addiction. The “silly season” often features frequent Christmas parties, longer lunches, and, of course, the week of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Throughout the summer, music festivals and dance parties seem to draw attendees in their thousands across the country. Apart from the mental health issues that often flare up for people who find themselves feeling isolated during this time, there’s an annual spike in drug-related arrests all over the country. It’s not a coincidence that addiction centres around the world expect an increase in demand every January.

This year, for example, saw the biggest meth bust in Australian history in the week leading up to Christmas. Of course, like the ever-growing “record-breaking” transfer fees enjoyed by elite athletes, it’s only a matter of time before another bust is the “biggest”, and another after that. Large-scale operations like this often enjoy hefty media airtime, and give the impression that law enforcement is winning, or at least not losing, the so-called “war on drugs” initiated by Ronald Reagan decades ago. But is this the case? The spike in arrests may correlate with a similar uptick in drug consumption, but proving this one way or the other is notoriously difficult, given that the illegality of many drugs means individuals are hardly likely to answer a survey on their consumption. Unfortunately, this means that the unregulated market risks the prevalence of a “bad batches”, contaminated drug supplies that have been known to claim the lives of unwitting users.

Of course, an increase in drug and alcohol-related arrests isn’t simply the product of an increase in usage and consumption. For there to be more arrests, there must also be an increased police presence, or an increased focus, on drug-related incidents. New Year’s Eve celebrations throughout the country are spotted with sniffer dogs, despite the ongoing debate about the expense and efficacy of their usage. But does increased presence, tougher laws, and large-scale arrests and drug busts actually make a difference to those who are at risk of drug-related harms?

 

In Perth, a “bad batch” of ecstasy has hospitalised nine backpackers,  following deaths under similar circumstances almost exactly a year earlier in Melbourne. The current government is resisting calls to implement pill testing facilities at music festivals and nightclubs that would allow consumers to determine what is in their product, instead focusing on a tough-on-crime approach that, according to experts in the field, is extremely dangerous. In the UK, where pill testing is becoming increasingly commonplace at music festivals, between ten and twenty per cent of tested pills are contaminated, mis-sold, or pure to the point of toxicity. When these pills are disposed of, not only is that ten to twenty per cents of the drugs out of circulation, but each represents a potential life saved from lethal overdose.

One such expert is Dr Alex Wodak, who I’ve written about in previous iterations of this blog. Dr Wodak argues that the war on drugs is unwinnable, a point that even Tony Abbott agrees with. Unfortunately, no matter how many kilos of meth our police seize, how many arrests they make, or how many people die of overdose, the simple fact remains the same: repeated assessments of current policy conclude that it is ineffective at best, and outright harmful at worst. It is important to note that SMART Recovery Australia wholeheartedly supports suppliers of illegal drugs facing justice and consequences for their actions: addressing issues of supply is critical to reducing consumer access to illicit substances. Current drug policy focuses on addressing issues of demand: by punishing users and consumers, it aims to reduce demand, and therefore make it harder for the drug trade to flourish. However, time and time again, this has failed to regulate the supply of drugs, failed to reduce demand, and does not address the needs of users, nor prioritise their health. Addiction is a tortuous enough state to be in without the stress and fear of incarceration or punishment. Treating vulnerable people like criminals reinforces the stigma against them, further isolating them and driving them towards, rather than away from, a chemical solution to their underlying issues.

As we’ve said before, SMART Recovery Australia advocates an approach that puts people first, and minimises the harms done to individuals, their families, and our society as a whole. We, along with Dr Wodak, believe that drug policy should be informed by evidence and designed to benefit the population. The “threshold step”, as Dr Wodak puts it, is to begin treating drug addiction as a health and social issue instead of one of law enforcement. The overwhelming majority of people facing addictions are not criminals or deviants. Often, they are marginalised, isolated individuals who need care, support, and the opportunity to recover from their addictions and move on with their lives.