Abbott Government Cutting Drug Treatment Funds

In the weeks before the budget, the government announced that it was launching a national strategy on methamphetamine and, in particular, ice. 

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On the Sunday night before the budget, the first ads in what we are told will be a $20 million campaign were launched. This has been followed by a highly publicised national roadshow by the National Ice Taskforce. Labor will offer its full support and cooperation for evidence based policies. One of the best ways to get evidence based policies is to have evidenced based debate. The task force has enjoyed that; the parliament has not always. This is why I was concerned and surprised to read that recently a government MP opened a local summit on the impact of methamphetamine by retelling a story of an ice addicted boy who was rushed to hospital after gouging out his own eyes and eating them. The story was horrific. It was also untrue. The local health district could do nothing to confirm it, and on interrogation the MP confessed that she heard it from a person who had heard it from a person who had heard it from a person.

It is a morality tale but not in the way that it was intended. It is a perfect example of how not to deal with the delicate balance that we as politicians and community leaders need to engage in. On the one hand, we do need to communicate to the community that we understand and are listening to their legitimate concerns. But, on the other hand, we should not be adding unnecessarily to deeply held concerns and fanning them into hysteria. We do have a problem with crystal methamphetamine. It is not as big a problem as we have with alcohol abuse, but it is a significant problem, and it presents as very visible and acute problems in communities that, for lack of expertise, services and resources, are often ill-equipped to deal with it.

What is the nature of the problem? The data set is not complete. People do not walk around with a T-shirt say 'I'm an ice addict.' What we do know is that the number of methamphetamine users nationwide probably has not increased. What we have seen is an increase in the purity of the drug and the number of people who are using the purer form of the drug. That is, they are transferring from one type of drug to another. What we do know is that communities in rural and remote areas are suffering from a much more concentrated and aggressive form of the use of the drug, and these are areas that often, for lack of services, are ill-equipped to deal with it as well. There is also a stubborn correlation that exists between economic disadvantage and lack of opportunity and the use of all forms of illicit drugs. Correcting these disparities is complex and often expensive. Declaring a war on drugs is often easier but not as effective.

I think that we do need to enjoy a bipartisan but evidence based approach to dealing with this very serious problem. But we also need to get it in perspective. I am pleased to hear the head of the task force declare that he does not believe that we can arrest our way out of this problem. It is true; we cannot. If the Prime Minister's figures are accurate, there are around about 200,000 people in the country who are using methamphetamine of one form or another. There are about 33,000 people in our jails today, so throwing ice users in jail is not going to be the answer. What we need is a serious debate, some serious evidence based policy. We also need to ensure that we are spending our limited resources in the best way possible. We should not make one area of expenditure in government's finite resources the enemy of another, but it is right to ask whether we are getting the spending in the most effective ways as possible. We know that about 66 per cent of Australia's drug budget is currently spent on law enforcement, and just 21 per cent is spent on treatment and 2.3 per cent on harm reduction. It is right to ask whether this is working.

We are also able to ask whether we are spending our resources at the Commonwealth level in the right way and whether we have got our priorities right. I said at the outset there was a much publicised national advertising campaign, which we are advised comes at a cost of about $20 million. Three days after the launch of that campaign, $500 million was taken from the flexible funds and around $8 million, we are advised, from the funds that are funding drug and alcohol treatment services. If we are going to make a legitimate and serious attempt at addressing this and other illicit drug concerns, we say that we have the priorities wrong in cutting the funding from those areas. We offer our full and bipartisan support to genuine, evidence based policies which will address these problems, and we have to get the debate right as well.

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