LET’S be clear: Australia is currently staring down a number of drug crises that are already directly negatively impacting communities from country towns to capital cities.
While the use of methamphetamine and synthetic opioid continues at alarming rates, demand reduction and harm minimisation measures are failing. Despite this, in the lead up to the federal election, neither of Australia’s major political parties have offered a policy position on what they’ll do about it.
When it comes to methamphetamine, or ‘ice’, it’s easy to assume that 2015 was a watershed moment for Australia. In April of that year, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, publicly admitted Australia had a problem with ice. In response, he created the National Ice Taskforce to examine the extent of the problem. Eight months later, the taskforce handed down its findings to Abbott’s successor, Malcolm Turnbull, who then released the National Ice Action Strategy.
While media reports of ice-induced psychosis attacks on streets and in hospitals have reduced, the problem itself has not. As I have written in the past, our National Waste Water Monitoring Program revealed that the strategy has failed: by the end of 2018, Australia’s volume of ice use had increased by 17 per cent. The ice epidemic prevails and continues to destroy the lives of addicts, their families, and the wider community.
While many, including myself, had thought that Australia might avoid the scourge of a synthetic opioid epidemic, we were all wrong. In 2016, deaths caused by drug overdose in Australia – mostly a result of opioid abuse – had reached a record high of 1,704. During the US opioid crisis, more than 40,000 Americans died each year from overdose.
And again, Australia’s Waste Water Monitoring Program has shown that its use of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, is at a two-year high by volume. Initial information from this study seems to indicate that much of this use might be related to increasing access to prescription painkillers. Interestingly this drug problem is likely to be impacting middle-aged Australians addicted to prescription drugs rather than the young.
On the plus side, the National Drug Strategy’s focus on demand-and-supply reduction and harm minimisation remains best practice.
Unfortunately, our national demand reduction and harm minimisation efforts are failing to achieve results. Young Australians are continuing to experiment and use a range of illicit substances at an alarming rate.
Some might be quick to argue that the deaths of a half a dozen young Australians from overdosing at music festivals hardly makes a national crisis. But such thinking fails to engage with the extent of and the wide ranging impacts of Australians’ unquenchable thirst for illicit drugs.
In 1984, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke cried on Australian television as he revealed that his daughter was a heroin addict. We would also do well to learn from the experiences of former New South Wales Premier Neville Wran’s daughter Harriet Wran’s addiction to ice. Drug addiction crosses all genders, ages, and cultural and economic demographics.
Australia’s law enforcement officers are fighting a losing battle against supply and non-government organisations are swamped with rehabilitation demands. Families are being torn apart as they struggle to access effective rehabilitation for their loved ones. And while they search for assistance, they’re fighting daily to keep their addicted loved ones alive.
With the impending federal election, there is an opportunity for Australia to hit the reset button on its National Drug Strategy. Through strong leadership, either or both parties could start treating addiction as a serious health issue, and this need not detract from supply reduction efforts.
A good start for such a policy would be to commit to reviewing the strategy, to funding drug rehabilitation services, and, in principle, to exploring new harm minimisation efforts.
The central argument for such a change would be simple. Addiction, which leads to petty crime and much lost potential, proves costly to the community in both direct and indirect ways. But also, just simply, Australia has a major problem with illicit drug use.
This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion.