Labor’s Rural and Regional Health Spokesperson, Stephen Jones, has welcomed the Abbott Government’s determination to tackle the crystal methylamphetamine epidemic in Australia, which is having a particularly profound impact on remote, regional and rural Australia.
The announcement that a national taskforce will coordinate federal, state and local efforts to impede the use, sale and manufacture of “ice” is a positive development.
The effects of this drug have been keenly felt in the local region, just this week an Unanderra man was accused of assaulting children during a violent rampage whilst allegedly coming off a four day ice binge.
However, Labor awaits further details of the national plan and believe that the focus must be on a coordinated response that goes beyond the “War on Drugs” rhetoric that has previously characterised illicit drug strategy in Australia.
We should always aim to disrupt the organised criminal elements, including outlaw motorcycle gangs, who profit from this highly addictive and widely available drug. However, in order to comprehensively address this problem the “national ice action strategy” must recognise that the criminal justice system and law enforcement efforts can only do so much.
The Abbott Government’s last budget cut $197 million out of the Department of Health’s Flexible Funds, which funds programs of national importance, including programs to combat drug and alcohol abuse.
Health Minister Sussan Ley has refused to confirm funding for any of these programs, only committing to a 12 month extension, and leaving many of them uncertain about their future.
This is disappointing, particularly since the models that have worked most successfully overseas involve a close integration of justice and public health systems. A “tough on crime” approach to illicit drugs may be considered politically appealing by some but can prove ineffectual or even counterproductive when put into practice.
After John Howard launched his own war on drugs from 1996 to 2002 the number of labs producing crystal methylamphetamine increased dramatically with the total number doubling in Queensland. Ice addiction did not go away, instead addiction levels escalated.
After the Global Commission on Drug Policy launched its research paper "Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work" in September last year the Chair of the Commission, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, declared that the “international drug control regime is broken” and that global leaders must consider “alternatives to the failed war on drugs.”
Labor calls on Tony Abbott to heed this advice.
The fact that this drug is having a particularly severe impact in remote, rural and regional areas is instructive. The poorer the community, the greater the problem becomes - ice use is twice as prevalent in rural and regional communities as in metropolitan areas.
It is often in the bush where the social and economic circumstances that drive drug abuse are more acute.
Disadvantaged communities featuring high levels of youth unemployment make easy targets for ice traffickers. It is outside of our cities where the provision of health, community and criminal justice services are struggling or non-existent. There is a troubling lack of drug rehabilitation facilities limiting treatment options as well as insufficient numbers of community workers.
Our police and courts can aim to throw more people behind bars but experts across the globe agree that this won’t make the problem go away.
We need to examine the circumstances that drive people to addiction and steer policy towards identifying and addressing the problems affecting vulnerable segments of the community.
Only then will the national plan to combat ice have any hope of properly confronting this epidemic that is crippling communities across Australia.