Health and social service providers and policy leaders have urged Federal, State and Territory Governments to treat drug use as a health issue

The stakeholders met for a national summit on drug harm reduction at Victoria’s Parliament House, and have now produced a call to governments to “treat drug use primarily as a health and social issue and to remove criminal sanctions for personal use and possession”.

“We make this call because our own professional experience supports overwhelming evidence that current Australian drug laws, although well-intentioned, create and/or worsen a wide range of health and social harms,” the group says.

“There are complex two-way interactions between the punitive approach to drug use and problems including poverty, social disadvantage, unemployment, homelessness, family violence, child protection interventions, mental illness and suicide.

“Poor drug policy also leads to further crime. The human and financial costs of the negative impacts of the current drug laws are borne not just by drug users, but by their families and communities, and the nation as a whole. 

“We have agreed to work together to improve public awareness of (a) the negative impacts of the current drug laws and the way they are interpreted and implemented, and (b) the real and tangible health and social benefits of drug law reform.”

Signatories include Marianne Jauncey, medical director at the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre; Matt Noffs, CEO of the Noffs Foundation; former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer; Reason Australia (formerly the Sex Party) leader Fiona Patten; and Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.

There was concern among the Roundtable participants that the current policy of allocating 60% of Australian government drug budgets to policing and prisons has failed to produce improvements, especially as highly effective treatment and harm reduction strategies have been chronically underfunded.

“By prioritising treatment, we could reduce the negative impact of focusing on criminalisation rather than harm reduction,” said Laurence Alvis, who leads alcohol and other drug services in Melbourne for Uniting Vic Tas.

“We see the failure of the current approach in the length of waiting lists for services like ours. It means that service funders focus on short episodes of treatment, when we know that treatment over a longer term is more likely to produce lasting outcomes.”

Brunswick pharmacist and harm minimisation proponent Angelo Pricolo welcomed the move, but warned that policies of treating drug addiction as a criminal issue were only one of several barriers to treatment.

“This is a discussion about decriminalisation, which is going down the route of the Portuguese model which has been called for for some time by people like Richard Di Natale at the Greens,” he told the AJP.

“We know the state government has put a lot of faith in the Drug Court and Tony Parsons, the magistrate who set it up; we know that he’s had some really good results and primarily that is is because he had been able to make that distinction: that addition is a medical condition and needs to be treated as such.

“So I think if we used him as a bit of a beacon, his example and his understanding from seeing people at the coal face makes it really clear that there really is only one way to properly treat people with an addiction disease: and that is to treat it as a health condition.

“If we don’t, then that’s at our peril, because we will follow the very flawed US model where over a million people are incarcerated; and I think that would’ve been at the forefront of a guy like Tony Parsons’ mind when he established the Drug Court.”

Mr Pricolo said that as well as the fact that much drug use is treated as a criminal barrier, access to help remains a problem. Many GPs are unwilling to prescribe methadone, he said, and people who do not see eye to eye with their GP may not have the ability to simply go to another.

But cost remains a huge barrier, he said.

“If you’re trying to get off alcohol, there are PBS treatments; if you’re trying to get off nicotine, there are PBS treatments – yet you look at opioid replacement, and that for some reason that doesn’t attract the same benefit,” he told the AJP. “So that’s a real issue.

“We continue to charge $30 a week and don’t put the two drugs that are used routinely to treat opioid addiction – buprenorphine and methadone – on the PBS.

“When you consider the nature of the disease, when people go for treatment they’re usually at their lowest point and in a position where they’ve run out of money, and that’s when we’re hitting them up for more cash.

“We’re pushing them away from treatment.”