25 October 2020

Grieving family and friends gather in Canberra to protest drug laws

| Dominic Giannini
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Drug Law Reform in Weston Park

The memorial plaque erected by Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform in Weston Park. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Jennie Ross-King’s 19-year-old daughter Alexandra was one of five people who died at a NSW music festival last year from a drug overdose.

Earlier this year, Canberra-man Matthew Lloyd died from overdosing on multiple drugs, including Xanax which was used to treat his anxiety.

Marion McConnell also lost her son 25 years ago to a drug overdose.

Marion called the ambulance one night to revive her son when he overdosed on heroin and when police attended and followed him to hospital, Marion says they were “more worried about who sold him the drugs than his health”.

Scared about the repercussions from dealers if he turned them in, her son fled Canberra and overdosed again a fortnight later. Only this time there was no one to call the ambulance.

“I am not blaming the police, it was the law at the time,” Marion said. “I thought that night, ‘things need to change’.”

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It is what led her to help establish the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.

For the 25th year in a row, the group will come together and hold a remembrance ceremony in Yarralumla for people affected by overdose deaths throughout Australia.

The group continues to call for urgent drug law reform and a shift to harm minimisation policies.

More facilities, better treatment options and legal reform to focus on non-punitive measures need to be implemented, Marion said.

Matthew’s friends reiterated the calls for better services, saying that while he struggled with anxiety and depression, the system let him down every step of the way, including his struggle to find quality mental health care.

The ACT announced it would implement a number of harm minimisation strategies in relation to drug use and abuse. This includes the legalisation of 50 grams of dried cannabis for personal use from January this year, a commitment to a summer pill testing trial in Civic and a feasibility study for a safe injecting room.

There needs to be more commonality between jurisdictions in relation to harm minimisation methods, Marion said, pointing to the fact there has not been pill testing over the border in NSW.

The Moderator of the New South Wales and ACT Synod of the Uniting Church, Reverend Simon Hansford, will read the names of those whose family or friends have asked to be remembered at Monday’s ceremony.

Reverend Hansford and the Church have instituted a Fair Treatment campaign to move the NSW and ACT governments to respond to drug use as a health issue.

READ MORE “Modern-day leper”: How drug policy is isolating Canberrans from help

The campaign outlines how a sense of shame can prohibit drug users from getting help because they feel shunned and fear legal consequences.

“Current NSW and ACT government approaches have fallen out of step with worldwide research and best-practice public health and legal policy,” the campaign website says.

“In addition, the majority of our community now supports more effective, compassionate responses to personal drug use.”

The memorial will take place at Weston Park in Yarralumla, on the east side of Weston Park Road, opposite Pescott Lane, at 12:30 pm today (26 October).

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