Hard evidence needs to be the basis upon which our drug policies are formulated, rather than emotion or politically-driven attitudes, according to John Rogerson, Chief Executive of the Australian Drug Foundation.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. That’s exactly where we’re at with our current approach to drugs here in Australia.
We’re hitting record drug seizures but we’re barely putting a dent in the market. Some police suggest that for every one seizure another nine slip through. Even the Prime Minister and senior police are saying to us “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem”.
Australians have an insatiable appetite when it comes to drugs. Studies show that we are world-leaders in drug consumption. We are the highest users of ecstasy, we’re the third biggest amphetamine users and second only to the US with our opioid use. And there’s no sign it’s going to change anytime soon.
Under the Howard government we saw signs of innovation. Drug diversion programs were put in place, drug courts were established and the ministerial council on drugs strategy led our response on the issue. There hasn’t been much new thinking since then and the ministerial council was abandoned several years ago.
Essentially we’ve been stuck in the same approach to dealing with Australia’s drug issue for 50 years – and frankly it hasn’t worked. Maybe that’s because drug policy reform continues to be driven by politics and media-driven public fear rather than evidence.
The time is ripe for our politicians to take the lead. The Turnbull government will invest almost $300 million over four years to improve treatment, addiction after care, education, prevention, support and community engagement to tackle the issue of ice. This is really good to see. And the establishment of the Ministerial Drug and Alcohol Forum, which reports to the Council of Australian Governments, is another major step forward.
If we look at what other countries are doing, we can see that there is an opportunity for a whole new way of thinking here. Let’s put all the options on the table – and that includes decriminalisation. Portugal decriminalised illicit drugs 15 years ago and the results speak for themselves. The number of deaths caused by drug overdose decreased from about 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012. Just as importantly, adolescent drug use and problematic drug use decreased.
Decriminalisation is not legalising drugs. What it means is that drugs remain illegal, but those who are caught with small quantities are put through the health system, rather than the justice system. The Portuguese government redirected funding into the health and welfare sectors so that just 10 per cent was spent on policing and 90 per cent on prevention, treatment and reducing harm. So far this really seems to have worked with a significant reduction in HIV infections and drug related deaths. It’s a whole of system approach.
Looking at what else is going on across society to help reduce the demand for drugs makes good sense. In Portugal they offer businesses cash incentives to hire the long-term unemployed people. Getting people back to work is one of the best protective factors we know.
While ideally we’d like to stop everybody from using drugs, let’s be real, it’s not going to happen. For those we can’t prevent from using drugs, we need to put measures in place to reduce the harm to themselves and the people around them.
It seems to be controversial but we do need to consider trialling pill testing. It is not a radical idea – it’s used in several European countries. Evidence shows pill testing saves lives.
For those who are dependent on drugs we really need to support them as much as we can to address the underlying factors behind their use. We need to look at setting up more safe injecting rooms like the one we have in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Evidence from here and overseas proves safe injecting rooms are effective. Evaluations of the safe injecting room in King’s Cross indicate that about 10,000 referrals were made to health and social welfare services between 2001-2011. The facility also safely managed more than 3426 drug overdoses during this time without a single fatality.
On Wednesday, Richard DiNatale, Sharman Stone and Melissa Parke are hosting a drug summit at Parliament House where ministers, MPs, non-government organisations and health providers will come together in a bid to look at new solutions.
The bottom line is this: we need to start seeing the person rather than the drug. We, as a community, have a responsibility to start addressing the social factors behind the drug use – treating the cause rather than the symptom.
Author: John Rogerson (Chief Executive of the Australian Drug Foundation)
[The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of SMART Recovery Australia.]