Government and governance, Law | Australia

7 October 2020

Despite attempts from policymakers to reverse concerning trends, Australians are becoming more dependent on recreational drugs, Vernon White writes.

The rising number of drug overdose deaths over the past five years should be alarming for Australians, and ever-increasing deaths must be a wake-up call. Indeed, the recent report by the Penington Institute showing this rise should also tell policymakers that their current path is not simply ineffective, but actively going in the wrong direction.

There needs to be a dramatic shift in drug policy if Australia hopes to stop or reverse these trends. The report shows increases year after year, and identifies a 58 per cent increase in the rate of unintentional drug-induced deaths in Australia over 15 years. 2018 statistics show a total of 2,070 drug overdose deaths, of which 1,556 were unintentional, showing just how grave this trend is becoming.

Especially troubling, Australia has seen an almost tripling of opioid deaths over that same period. Deaths from pharmaceutical opioids, both legitimate and counterfeit, are growing, mirroring the problems seen in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in recent years.

With the Penington report in hand, policymakers must look at what is happening in Australia, what impact the growing or changing drug trends are having, and clearly identify areas that could be and need to be improved if Australia is to reverse the current drug situation.p

The accepted strategy to combat drug deaths in Australia has been a focus on demand, supply, and harm reduction, known as the ‘three pillar’ approach. This is not an inherently bad approach, but it isn’t being executed well.

As an analogy, these pillars should be seen as the legs of a balanced three-legged stool, but the reality is that these legs are not equal, and this unbalanced approach is causing policy problems for Australia.

More on this: Australia, you have a drug problem

If it were truly a balanced approach, the results would be seen in the reduction of illicit drug use, a reduction or maintenance of overdose deaths, and maintaining improvements on drug-related arrests and seizures of contraband by law enforcement.

Instead, the arrests and seizures are increasing, drug prices are maintaining previous levels and, in some cases, dropping, and there has been little or no positive impact in the other areas either.

While Australia’s drug policy is ostensibly a balanced ‘three pillar’ approach, unless changes are made in implementing and operationalising that policy there can be no real balance. It may even be time for policymakers to question whether this approach is even on the right track at all.

For instance, treating these three pillars as equals may hamstring policymakers’ ability to put greater focus on those who are addicted, and may instead overly focus on restricting supply. If those impacted by addictions get the support they need, both addicts and their communities will surely benefit.

On top of growing death figures, the most recent 2020 Waste Water report estimates more than $11 billion being spent on illicit drugs by Australians. While there has been a noted reduction in alcohol, nicotine, and some illicit drugs, of serious concern is the growing use of drugs that are likely connected to growing overdose rates.

Over a three-year period from 2016 to 2019, the wastewater reporting has shown the growing use of methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDMA, and heroin in Australia, with regional areas seeing the largest increases.

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

When policymakers look at that data, it must be seen in the context of ever-increasing drug overdose deaths, and they should acknowledge that over the past decade Australian drug strategy is not doing enough.

Wastewater results, along with the Penington Report, should be seen as a call to action.

That call to action could engage those in the community on the front lines of drug addiction with government policymakers to find agreement on what should be done.

This must happen with the goal of decreasing overdose deaths and increasing engagement with addicts overall.

Ultimately, a shift needs to take place. The time is ripe for Australians to recognise that addictions are best handled as a health problem, allowing law enforcement to continue their focus on trafficking in illicit substances.

The resources expended chasing drug addicts, either because they are committing the crime of possession or because they are committing crimes to access funds, could be reduced if Australia took on a policy direction that focuses on treating addiction.

Currently, Australia criminalises people for having a health problem, addiction, but the country needs an alternative to this if there is to be any expectation that it can slow or reverse these trends.

The time has come for Australia to consider other models, perhaps those of Switzerland or Portugal. Both these governments have taken a different path in how they manage the problem of addiction.

Switzerland has a safe supply replacement therapy program, designed to decriminalise addiction, while Portugal has decriminalised possession of illegal drugs, taking on a restorative model that assists addicts in their battle against addiction.

These are just two of the models, and many other countries including Canada are piloting similar approaches Australian policymakers could look to.

The need for change is upon Australians, and the three-pillar approach must become more responsive. Ultimately, the harm reduction leg of this wobbly policy-making stool must include more options, and if it does, all Australians, not just those directly affected by drugs, stand to benefit.

 

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