Chatting to ABC Radio about a new approach to illicit drugs policy

NICK RHEINBERGER: In a speech to the Drug Summit, the Parliamentary Drug Summit, Stephen Jones had some really interesting things to say about things that he has been seeing in drug treatment centres right around Australia.

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He has been visiting them for some time now. I caught up with him earlier on and asked him about one particular quote: “Is criminal law the best way to deal with this? The evidence is in; the question is whether we choose to ignore it”. What was that evidence?

SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH, STEPHEN JONES: There are a whole bunch of things we are doing with our national drug strategy at the moment that either aren’t working or aren’t working as effectively as we want them to do. To put this in context, we spend in excess of $1.7 billion a year on our national drug strategy. About 65 per cent of that is directed at attempting to interrupt the supply of drugs through customs. But it’s not working; supply seems to be stubbornly non-responsive to a lot of those efforts. Crystal methamphetamine is a good example of that; there has been an unprecedented level of policing in the area but supply goes up and the cost goes down.

On the other hand, areas that we do know are very effective – treatment and harm reduction; they get a very small slice of the overall pie. So we need to re-think what we are doing and re-focus on the strategies that work.

RHEINBERGER: It seems there are many things where the evidence is not really congruent with policy. Why is that in this area?

JONES: I think in this area, when you look at drug policy it is often considered the “third rail” of politics. I can see why, criminal law is the most forceful way society can say – we don’t approve of a certain behaviour. You can think of a whole range of behaviours where we create a crime and that is a very forceful way of saying that we don’t approve. None of us approve of people risking their lives and taking dangerous substances oftentimes not knowing what in in the pills they are taking or the drugs they are injecting. We all object to that, we don’t want people to do it.

But we’ve got to question whether the strategies which are all front-loaded around criminal sanctions are the most effective ways of tackling this. Or whether strategies directed at education, around harm reduction – that is reducing the harms associated with the behaviours – and strategies about dealing with the underlying health problems need more attention.

Let me give you one example, I spent a fair bit of time around the last 12 months going around treatment centres. When I talk to frontline workers they tell me that around 80 per cent of the people they are dealing with are also dealing with some underlying trauma, which is probably the cause of their addiction. Now it might be domestic violence, it might be childhood sex abuse, it might be that they’ve had a traumatic accident and have been given prescription pain relief – opiates mainly – as a way of dealing with their pain and they have subsequently become addicted to those. A whole heap of these underlying health issues aren’t being addressed when we have an approach which is front-loaded toward criminal sanctions.

RHEINBERGER: There seems to be an issue with the way drug harm minimisation is portrayed in the media, are politicians frightened of that? You mentioned the injecting room in Kings Cross, for instance. But that is viewed by some people as tacit endorsement of certain behaviour. Of being tactic approval to peoples’ drug addiction, what do you think about that?

JONES: One of the most moving discussions I’ve been involved in occurred two weeks ago. Tony Trimingham from the Families Drug Support Australia – that is families who are dealing with another family member addicted to drugs – gave a very moving speech on the anniversary of his son’s death several decades ago now. He was saying, my son probably would have got over his drug addiction if we had just kept him alive long enough.

His brothers are alive with families today and he mourns the death of his son. He has said that if only we hadn’t stigmatised the problems that he was going through at that particular time and kept him alive to deal with his underlying issues I probably would be nursing his grandkids today. I’m sure that story is told by literally hundreds or even thousands of families around Australia today. Which stirs my mind to the fact – what can we do to keep these families’ kids alive long enough so that we can turn their lives around and deal with their underlying issues?

RHEINBERGER: Have we kept people alive because of the needle exchange programs and the injecting room at Kings Cross?

JONES: I was talking to the medical supervisor last week and it’s probably a little-known fact we are actually going through another upturn in the use of heroin in New South Wales and other states as well. Probably not to the same level as we saw in the 90’s, but it’s going up again. She was telling me the overdose levels are going through the roof. But the fact that they have occurred at that premises meant that they were immediately able to intervene and people weren’t dying as they would have been if that behaviour had been occurring in a bedroom somewhere or a back alley somewhere. If so, those people would have died. We need to keep these people alive long enough so that we can turn their lives around and deal with the underlying issues.

RHEINBERGER: We spoke about this yesterday with an expert from Western Australia about the difference between legalising and decriminalising. What’s your view of what we should do with laws in Australia?

JONES: I guess you’ve got to ask yourself, most of this stuff is directed at the state level of government and I don’t want to necessarily go around jumping on those landmines in another jurisdiction. But I will make this point - is filling our gaols with people either directly or indirectly because of their drug use the most efficient way of dealing with this? At over $300 a day to keep someone in goal you’ve got to say to yourself, it probably isn’t.

A health-based approach, which is based on rehabilitation, is different. It doesn’t sanction the behaviour; it doesn’t sanction drug dealing or any of that sort of behaviour. I started with my discussion with you saying that this is wrong and people shouldn’t be doing it because it’s bad for their health and it supports criminal networks and the rest of it. Look, none of us support that. But it’s about focussing on what is the most effective way of dealing with it. I’m not convinced that throwing people in gaol is the most cost-effective way of dealing with. In terms of dealing with that issue, it’s just not the best way to go about it.

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