TIME TO RETHINK HOW WE TACKLE ILLICIT DRUG USE

We need a rethink about how we tackle illicit drug use. Around Australia the National Ice Taskforce has heard the same thing - handcuffs and paddy wagons aren’t the only answer. Instead, we need the criminal justice and health systems to work hand in hand.

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Although ice is a relatively new drug in Australia, the problems leading to ice use and addiction are not.

This explains why ice use is having a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well as those living in remote areas. The drug has spread rapidly into rural communities across Australia, a pattern that has been replicated overseas in the United States. We should not be surprised that this is the case. There is a stubborn correlation that exists between economic disadvantage, lack of opportunity and illicit drug and alcohol use. The health of individuals and populations is largely determined by social and economic factors and the use of ice is no different, it is as simple as that.  

But correcting these disparities is complex and often expensive. Declaring a “War on Drugs” sounds tough, but there is little evidence that it is the answer. The latest Australian Crime Commission Illicit Drugs Data Report notes that drug arrests for amphetamine-type stimulants, such as ice, were up 18 per cent and seizures of the drug up 27 per cent. This number has doubled in the past five years.

You may expect these record seizures would make it harder to buy ice – but this is not the case. The ACC report noted that in Victoria the price has fallen by about $100,000 per kilogram. The cost of the drug to users has plummeted by up to 60 per cent in New South Wales. The purity of ice remains high; every single state recorded an increase in the purity of methamphetamine.

Are fewer people turning to illicit drugs, including ice? No. The Government has quoted figures that the number of ice users has doubled since 2010. Other experts dispute this and maintain that the number of people using ice has remained mostly steady since 2008. What we do know is that it isn’t dropping with more arrests. We also know that more and more people are switching from the powder form of methamphetamine to the more potent crystal form (i.e. ice) and the proportion of people who use ice at least once a week is increasing.

Ice is an acute public health issue that requires strong action at the federal and state level. But it’s no use tallying up total numbers of arrests and seizures and pretending that we have a grip on this. We should also question whether a greater number of illicit drug arrests represents any sort of progress. The ACC report notes that drug arrests for amphetamine-type stimulants are up 18 per cent and seizures 27 per cent.

But we need to look at the fine print.

Although the number of illicit amphetamine-type seizures may have significantly increased, the amount of drugs actually seized was down a whopping 36 per cent. This means that more small-time users rather than drug suppliers are being caught. I think that if we really want to make progress we have to take a fresh look at the situation and consider what strategies have worked elsewhere.

New Zealand has opted for a co-ordinated police and health plan that has seen a significant expansion of medical treatment and counselling services. The results have been compelling - the number of methamphetamine users in that country has halved in the last five years. Similarly, in Portugal, drug misuse is regarded as a health problem and the availability of treatment considered the primary aim. The result? Levels of illicit drug use in Portugal are below the European average.

Our own national strategy can learn from these models.

When the ice taskforce held its first expert meeting in Brisbane one peak drugs body revealed that 66 per cent of Australia’s drugs budget is spent on law enforcement but just 21.3 per cent spent on treatment and 2.3 per cent on harm reduction. So it is obvious where our funding priorities lie.

A preference for policing over treatment and rehabilitation is worrying because evidence from the United States suggests that for every dollar spent on drug treatment we save $7 to the community, compared with $2 for stronger policing. This is not welcome news for the communities identified earlier as being especially vulnerable to addiction; particularly since they are often the same communities where drug treatment and rehabilitation services are lacking.

It is encouraging to hear Justice Minister, Michael Keenan, say that making more arrests isn’t the answer. But unfortunately the Government’s actions have not matched such rhetoric.

In the last two Budgets the Government ripped just under $800 million from Flexible Health Funds, which includes valuable grants aimed at drug rehabilitation and treatment as well as prevention strategies. This follows the Assistant Health Minister, Senator Fiona Nash, forcing the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia to shut its doors. Senator Nash also dismissed every member of the Australian National Council of Drugs and the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee was abolished altogether.

All of this indicates that the Government isn’t actually serious about arresting the ice epidemic its TV ads have been warning about.

It all comes down to this - Australia has a clear choice. We can use the national ice strategy as a smokescreen to launch yet another War on Drugs or make a real effort to get to the real heart of this problem. It’s time that we considered all possible solutions. Because as many people in communities across Australia will tell you - the stakes are too high to get this wrong.

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