North East Victoria is feeling the effects of illicit drugs, especially ice.
When Premier Dan Andrews visited his home town of Wangaratta in August this year he was met with the magnitude of the problem faced by the local community. Wangaratta stands out in the region for ice-related ambulance callouts but treatment options are sorely lacking.
In fact, there is a shortage of treatment options across rural Victoria for those who are trying to turn their lives around.
Thankfully 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, which are unable to keep up with growing demand.
We can’t arrest our way out of these problems and families in the North East know this better than most. Prisons are already overcrowded and those on the inside have little hope of turning their lives around. This means that many of them will end up straight back in prison with little to no hope of proper rehabilitation.
Just a few months ago it was reported that a prisoner in the North East had been trying for nine months to access a drug treatment program. His situation is typical of many. When it comes to combating drug use our prisons have become the service-provider of last resort. Even if this was an effective option (which it isn’t) it’s also an expensive one. It costs more than $320 a day to keep someone in prison in Victoria. What hope is there for people who have been refused parole because they cannot access treatment and get themselves better? They will succumb to a life of despair and resort to crime.
Even though the Andrews Government is racing ahead to improve services, the federal Coalition Government refuses to help. Communities in North East Victoria 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 rural Victoria.
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 North East Victoria deserve better.
This opinion piece was originally published in The Border Mail newspaper.