FEDERAL DRUG TREATMENT CUTS HAVING A HARSH IMPACT

In Geelong and surrounding areas communities are feeling the effects of illicit drug use, including ice. Services just can’t keep up with demand.

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People using drugs such as ice are told that they have to wait 10 weeks just to get an initial psychiatric assessment. It doesn’t end there. Waiting lists for a residential rehabilitation bed can be six months, meaning that people often give up on accessing treatment.

There are private options in Geelong, but it will cost you. Three months at the Raymond Hader Clinic costs $32,000. Even those who give up on options in Australia and head overseas to countries like Thailand still have to pay as much as $10,000 to $15,000.

The CEO of the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, Sam Biondo, has said underinvestment from the former Coalition state government has led to huge pressures on the system. The situation in Victoria is changing and it couldn’t come soon enough. The Andrews Government has significantly increased funding for alcohol and drug treatment services. As part of a $45.5 million package, $18 million has been allocated for more rehabilitation services. The Government is doing everything it can to assist services in rural areas, where organisations are especially under the pump.

But it is no good having the state Government in Victoria with a foot on the accelerator if the federal Government has its foot firmly planted on the brake. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening. Communities in Geelong and the region have been abandoned by the Coalition in Canberra.

Over the last two Budgets, a total of almost $800 million has been ripped from the Health Flexible Funds, which includes funds supporting alcohol and illicit drug treatment and rehabilitation as well as prevention strategies.

It gets worse.

The Coalition’s mishandling of funding for NGO rehab services has led to a funding crisis in the treatment sector. The delay in extending this funding and the fact that it was only extended for one year meant that many service providers saw it a stay of execution.

We need to get our priorities right. The Commonwealth has spent $20 million on graphic TV ads warning of the dangers of ice whilst leaving the solutions to the problem underfunded. Treatment services are crying out for funding certainty and there just aren’t enough rehabilitation beds available in Geelong.

Even current and former members of the law enforcement community are saying enough is enough.

The head of the National Ice Taskforce and former Police Commissioner Ken Lay has said on several occasions that treatment, prevention and community support is crucial. He understands that rural communities in particular want the focus of an ice strategy to be on primary prevention and harm reduction.

At a broader level, I think we need to change our approach. Australian governments spend in excess of $1.7 billion annually combating illicit drug use. Over 64 per cent is spent on supply reduction via law enforcement agencies. In contrast, 22 per cent is spent on treatment, 9.5 per cent on prevention and just 2.2 per cent on harm reduction.

Although it is always important to target the organised criminal elements responsible for trafficking drugs like ice we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. Throwing more and more people in gaol just isn’t the answer. We need to confront the underlying social and mental health issues or we won’t get anywhere.

Evidence from around the world tells us that strategies aimed at prevention and treatment are more effective than increasing penalties and enforcement.

In the United States, a 1997 study concluded that treatment is estimated to be 10 to 15 times more cost-effective than enforcement interventions at reducing serious drug-related crime. Meanwhile, a 2006 national study in the United Kingdom found the same thing. Treatment was associated not only with a reduction in harmful behaviours associated with drug use but also a decline in offending.

If we don’t change how we approach the problem we can’t expect a different result. 

Some politicians like to talk up a “War on Drugs”. It may sound tough, the problem is that what we are doing isn’t working.

Part of this change involves improving rehabilitation services and prevention strategies. Workers on the frontline need a boost. They are doing their best with one arm tied behind their back.

When people put their hand up and say that they are willing to turn their lives around we need to get them into treatment right away. This can only occur if they have somewhere to go.

Let’s end the federal Coalition’s neglect of the treatment sector. Vulnerable communities in Geelong and surrounding areas deserve better.

This opinion piece was first published in the Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday, 2 December 2015.

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