Many of our previous blogs have focussed on the current ice epidemic in Australia, with the highly addictive drug being blamed for spiralling rates of domestic violence and drug-related criminal activity.
Unfortunately, much of the government’s response to date has focussed on measures which seek to punish ice users, for instance, by setting tough penalties for drug offences, while failing to address the underlying reasons behind drug use.
This is contrary to measures successfully adopted in overseas countries such as Portugal, which aim to treat addiction as a health issue, rather than a crime. These countries have decriminalised drug possession; instead focussing on the rehabilitation of drug users as the primary concern.
Now, there are indications that Australia may be moving towards addressing underlying issues, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledging $300 million in funding for the drug treatment sector over the weekend.
From Policing to Prevention
The package will see $300 million in funding distributed to drug treatment services across four years to curb drug-related activity.
Announcing the package on Sunday, the Prime Minister said that strong law enforcement is ‘absolutely necessary’ in winning the war against ice use – but conceded that ‘we cannot arrest our way to success.’
$241.5 million of the total package will be invested in the government’s Primary Health Networks, which include hospitals and other community health services. These networks will be tasked with developing tailored drug and alcohol treatment programs for particular regions.
A further $24.9 million is pledged to help families and communities respond to ice, while $18.8 million will be allocated to drug treatment research, including the establishment of a Centre for Clinical Excellence for Emerging Drugs of Concern. $13 million will be spent on new Medical Benefits Schedule items to increase access to treatment.
Rural and regional areas – which have long been dubbed ice ‘hotspots’ but lack access to treatment services – will benefit from a significant injection in funding, and indigenous-specific treatment services will also be prioritised.
The announcement follows the government’s promise of a revolutionary new mental health care system, a system which is in dire need of greater resources. The latest announcement signals a greater recognition of the link between mental health and drug abuse.
Minister for Rural Health Fiona Nash has discussed how the two systems would be integrated, saying:
‘Given the close correlation between mental health and drug abuse, we have closely aligned delivery of drug and alcohol treatment services with the delivery of mental health packages through PHNs.’
A Fresh Approach
Speaking to the media, Mr Turnbull announced that his government would be tackling drug addiction in a very different way to his predecessors.
He acknowledged that ‘the responsibility for tackling this very complex problem can’t be left to the police alone,’ and stated that ‘medical and healthcare professionals, who are closest to the…people in need, are best able to determine how the money is spent.’
The announcement has been warmly welcomed by Australian Drug Foundation Chief Executive John Rogerson, who said that a move away from the ‘one-dimensional approach to dealing with alcohol and drugs’ was much needed.
Mr Rogerson told the media:
‘A heavy emphasis on law enforcement turned into something which is integrate, which has strong focus on treatment, on prevention and community…This is the major shift which needs to happen in Australia…we have got to get away from treating it as a criminal justice issue and treating it as a health issue.’
The government’s fresh approach has also been welcomed by Former Chief of Victoria Police, Ken Lay, who prepared a report urging governments to focus efforts on treating, rather than punishing, drug users.
He has previously criticised the government’s handling of the ice scourge, saying:
‘Ice has been on the scene for over a decade and we’ve had a really strong law enforcement approach and it hasn’t resolved the problem. The time’s right now to look at the other options…For social problems like these, law enforcement isn’t the answer. Unless you get into the primary prevention end, unless you stop the problem occurring you simply won’t arrest your way out of this.’
It is hoped that this new approach marks a step in the right direction when it comes to treating drug addiction – and that the future will see an increased focus on treating our ice problem as a health concern, rather than a criminal law problem.