Government and governance, Law, Social policy, Health | Australia

19 February 2020

The Australian community has long struggled with the impacts of drug use. Without intelligent government action designed to tackle both supply of and demand for illicit drugs, they will continue to have a serious negative impact, Vernon White writes.

Crystal methamphetamine (ice) addiction rates in Australia are one of the highest among developed nations, and its healthcare and law enforcement systems are not equipped to meet the challenges they present. Without policy change, high levels of ice use present extremely difficult problems to the community.

More on this: Podcast: Illicit drug policy – more harm than good?

A clear example of those negative impacts are drug users who are now dying, in near-record numbers, of opioid overdoses. Since 2005, opioid-induced deaths have become an increasing problem, roughly doubling in prevalence.

While not a surprise to Australia’s first responders and health officials, who are dealing with addiction-related problems on the front line every day, this does appear to have come as a surprise to policymakers, who have failed to properly respond to the growing issue.

This ongoing battle will only make it harder for Australia to tackle its already difficult drug culture. In the last 15 years, the country has seen a growing number of deaths attributable to dangerous and addictive drugs, illegal and legal, along with a number of highly discussed drug-related deaths at music festivals, which sparked national discussion about drug use in Australia.

Although Australia has a number of drug-related policy problems, it is the increasing use of opioids that is creating the most dangerous and deadly situation for Australians.

Australia has hit record opioid overdose death numbers, and reports from The Australian Bureau of Statistics, both in 2016 and 2017, identify that growing overdose deaths – specifically opioid-induced overdose deaths – are a real concern.

When policymakers consider how ongoing drug use trends combine with this new threat, it is clear that current and previous drug strategies will not be an effective tool, and lack the necessary ability to truly tackle this issue.

A strong policy response to these problems will require innovative approaches that shift Australia from where it currently is to where it needs to go. Experts in the community, from police officers and health leaders to academics and politicians, have told the government again and again that Australia cannot arrest its way out of this problem.

More on this: Illicit drugs – how can Australia protect its people?

Yet, the primary focus has historically been on just that, with the country simply trying to police its community out of a worsening problem. It is becoming clear that any policy framework leading officials to focus on supply is doomed to failure, without a strong corresponding initiative targeting demand.

In 32 years of policing and more than seven years in public service and research, I have rarely seen anything like this. No matter the problem, the resources dedicated to this growing problem are not making much of a difference.

Whether it is ice or synthetic opioids, when it comes to illegal product or the precursors to make such products, the primary source country for Australia has been China – previous work done by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on source countries has been clear on this.

It has also been clear in identifying that any policy designed to tackle drug addiction cannot be successful if its focus is on combatting supply without a concentrated effort to deal with demand.

Regardless of the amount of money and human resources dedicated to this problem, if Australian policymakers primarily focus on interdiction and law enforcement, they can expect but a minor level of success.

That drug use is happening across multiple age, cultural, and socio-economic groups, makes successful intervention even more difficult. Traditional key performance indicators (KPIs) used by law enforcement agencies correspond to their experience and expectations, and therefore most often target seizures, charges, arrests, and prosecutions.

While these KPIs may be appropriate for law enforcement, they cannot affect the health of an addict successfully, and that is where the focus needs to be – on the addict.

Having fought the ice battle for more than a decade, Australians have seen an epidemic sweep across the country. Failure to significantly impact on ice and now combined with the use of opioids, often fentanyl, will place the health of Australians at greater risk.

A strong drug strategy must, of course, consider the importance of impacting illegal activity, but it must be coupled with a strong harm reduction model that targets those most in danger.

The Western Australia Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies (WANADA) has identified a number of issues with Australia’s current strategy, primarily focused on responsiveness, purpose, and key principles.

WANADA notes, as ASPI did in its report of 2015, that success will only be found when this integration becomes the norm. The potential for a strategy that deals with drug use as a health problem must be addressed, as has been done with both alcohol and tobacco.

Until Australian drug strategy shows enough flexibility to be able to meet system demands, while providing strong treatment, prevention, and education policies to coincide with already highly resourced law enforcement initiatives, Australians will continue to be victims of drug addiction.

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