Australia needs a significant shift in how it discusses drug use, says Angelo Pricolo, a member of the PSA’s Harm Minimisation Committee and a National Councillor with the Pharmacy Guild – and today’s Drug Summit may be a sign that that shift is happening.
Leading drug and alcohol researchers and international experts met in Canberra today to brief politicians from all parties on drug policy at the National Drug Summit, with a focus on the benefits of decriminalising possession and use of small amounts of illicit drugs.
“One of the really interesting things that came out of the Summit today was that everybody accepted that drug use is really a continuum – we don’t have drug users and non-drug users,” Pricolo told the AJP.
“Pretty much everybody to an extent uses drugs in some capacity, and you don’t have to be a user of the illicit drugs – whether that’s the alcoholic who drinks too much and suffers the health benefits, or you or I who have a glass of wine with dinner.
“The two most damaging drugs in our society are totally legal, depending on age, and those are alcohol and tobacco.”
Pricolo says that the stigma faced by illicit drug users seems arbitrary, given that which category a drug falls into determined whether an individual is a criminal or simply somebody partaking in a legal activity.
Stigma against users of illicit drugs, whether from health professionals, peers or the wider community, causes significant problems, he says.
“One thing that came out of the user groups today is that stigma is probably the biggest barrier to drug rehabilitation, as there’s such stigma attached to entering treatment, or just telling your family that you have a drug problem. And without support, it’s very hard to overcome a drug problem.
“Pharmacists are a cross-section of the community, like doctors or bricklayers, and because drug use is seen as a social and ethical problem more than it’s seen as a medical problem, we’re always going to have a cross-section of pharmacists who will be opposed to treatment because their philosophy is that addicts get themselves into it.
“We need to change our philosophy about what drug addiction is. Foremost, it’s a medical problem, and until we have a shift in the way we talk about drug use it’s always going to be difficult to impose real change.”
Pharmacists who have moral concern about providing treatment for drug addicts – such as dispensing naloxone, which following Pricolo’s application to the TGA last year was downscheduled to Pharmacist Only – should be encouraged to change their views, he says.
“Because prescription opioid use has overtaken heroin, the majority of overdoses that naloxone treats will have been caused by what’s come out of your safe! So even from that perspective I think there’s an obligation to be part of the solution.”
Pricolo says another solution could be shifting the focus of treatment from the GP to the patient, as many GPs are reluctant to work in the illicit drug treatment space.
“Two per cent of doctors work in this sector, and 40% of pharmacists,” he told the AJP. “And I’ve never dispensed a script for naloxone, when it was on script. That’s because the doctors weren’t writing those prescriptions.”
Pricolo says that not only was the Summit encouraging, its very existence was a sign that attitudes may be changing.
“It was really promising that the three major parties were represented – although it was pulled together by Richard di Natale of the Greens, it was co-chaired by the three major parties. We all acknowledge that for anything to move forward in this space we need support across the parties.
“Five years ago we probably couldn’t have had this summit at Parliament House, so it was a real positive.”