Social services summit calls for #HelpNotHarm drug reform

EMBARGOED until 0001hrs Wednesday 21st March 2018

More than 30 of Australia’s social service organisations and policy leaders are putting drug harm reduction squarely on the agenda at a high-level Roundtable meeting in Melbourne today.

The participants will address the evidence that Australia’s prohibition and law enforcement approach is not reducing illegal drug use, but is instead causing many adverse outcomes across our communities.

“Arrest and prosecution often involves the loss of employment, housing and family and community support. This can spiral into further crime, but also increase family homelessness, domestic violence, child protection interventions, mental health issues and suicide rates,” says the Roundtable convenor, Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, a leading epidemiologist and founding Director of Australia21.

“Meanwhile, prohibition and the threat of criminal penalties drives drug users away from the help they need and puts the production, distribution and control of illicit drugs into the hands of criminals,” says Em. Professor Douglas.

Social service providers have been witnessing a rise in the human and financial costs of the current policies for individuals, families and the nation as a whole, according to Laurence Alvis, who leads alcohol and other drug services in Melbourne for Uniting Vic,Tas

There is no question that Australia’s drug policy settings create and worsen social problems beyond the drugs field. Uniting regularly deals with people experiencing multiple social issues in our alcohol and other drug programs. Our experience is that drug policy can also have a negative impact on their experiences of issues such as mental health, family violence and homelessness.”

Mr Alvis is concerned 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. 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,” says Mr Alvis.

International evidence from countries including Portugal, where drug use has been redefined as a health and social issue rather than one of criminal justice, shows a change in approach can produce better social outcomes more quickly and at lower cost, potentially removing the need for downstream interventions and related spending.

The extent to which adverse social conditions and disadvantage actually increase problematic drug use also needs far more research in Australia.

Today’s Roundtable will consider how multi-sectoral collaboration might encourage changes to federal and state policy settings that would support, instead of impede, the stated aim of Australia’s National Drug Strategy: ‘To build safe, healthy and resilient Australian communities through preventing and minimising alcohol, tobacco and other drug-related health, social, cultural and economic harms among individuals, families and communities.’

“It is clear the prevalence and seriousness of a wide scope of social problems in diverse sectors would be reduced through better responses to the use and abuse of illegal, pharmaceutical and other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco,” says former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer, an Emeritus Director of Australia21.

“The War on Drugs approach was well intended but failed disastrously in Australia and other countries. While unregulated manufacture and trafficking should remain serious criminal offences, Australia should adopt a more rational, more cost-effective, evidence-based and human rights approach, including decriminalisation of personal possession of drugs and better treatment options. We can’t punish people into getting better.”

The national Roundtable is being held in Victoria’s Parliament House, where the state’s report on the Parliamentary Drug Law Reform Inquiry is due to be delivered this month.

In 2017 a prominent group of serving and former senior police, prison officers, lawyers and AOD experts put their names to Australia21’s groundbreaking report Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?, launched by former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett and former NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr.

The report made 13 key recommendations, aimed at:

· minimising harms for drug users and those around them,

· reducing the use of untested, unregulated drugs in unsafe environments,

· providing more health and social programs to reduce drug-related problems,

· reducing and even eliminating criminal control of the drug market,

· reducing the prison population and its associated progress to hard drug use,

· supporting police and the judicial system to focus law enforcement more usefully.

It followed on from two other high-level Australia21 Roundtables and reports:

· The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are letting it happen (2012)

· Alternatives to prohibition. Illicit drugs. How we can stop killing and criminalising young Australians (2012)

Australia21 is an independent, not for profit think tank established in 2001. We promote fair, sustainable and inclusive public policy through evidence-based research. We also run the Mindful Futures Network, the YoungA21 Network and the Australia21/ALDAF Smarter About Drugs education initiative.

Laurence Alvis is the Executive Officer of Uniting ReGen, the alcohol and other drug treatment and education service of Uniting Vic.Tas, a community service organisation operating in Victoria and Tasmania.

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