14 July 2020

"Modern-day leper": How drug policy is isolating Canberrans from help

| Dominic Giannini
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ACT also reported an increase in methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDA, oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin consumption but found nicotine and alcohol remain the highest consumed substances.

ACT also reported an increase in methylamphetamine, cocaine, MDA, oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin consumption but found nicotine and alcohol remain the highest consumed substances. Photo: File.

If former Chief Minister Kate Carnell had been allowed to finish her proposed six-month trial of a safe-injecting room in Canberra, there would be no need for a second prison in the ACT, according to drug decriminalisation advocate Bill Bush.

Mr Bush, a member of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, gave evidence today (14 July) to an ACT Parliamentary inquiry into youth mental health. He says the stigma around drug use and criminality adversely affects the mental health of struggling addicts. As an example, he cites the Prime Minister pulling the plug on a drug reform trial.

“There is no more stigma that you can put on someone than calling them a criminal for something that they do,” he said.

“If you are made a criminal there is this stigma, you are an outlier, you are a modern-day leper. It is like acid in terms of people’s mental health.

“If Kate Carnell had been able to continue with the heroin trial that she proposed … our situation in relation to unemployment, homelessness and so many other social problems would not have been as serious as they are now.”

Mr Bush wants to see reform to the judicial system that criminalises drug use. He says government policy should reflect the fact that drug use is a health issue, then the destigmatisation and removal of fear from drug users who are scared of going to prison will encourage people to get the help they need.

Legalisation or decriminalisation can help stabilise a user’s situation enough to help them address other major issues like mental health or homelessness in their life without the worry of going to prison, he said.

“From the drug policy point of view, it is getting treatment that is person-centric,” he said.

“You also have people with chronic pain who are not able to get pain relief that they need because of the restrictions on prescriptions and doctor shopping, and we know a number of them out of desperation resort to the illicit market.”

Bill Bush says the stigma and criminalisation of drug use are causing adverse mental health effects. Photo: Harm Reduction Australia.

This kind of criminalisation of drugs directly feeds into the Black Lives Matter movement and the high proportion of Indigenous people in custody, he said, adding that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are also targeted for their drug use and fill Australia’s prisons.

“We need to consider the interplay between mental health policy and drug policy,” Mr Bush said, calling for more justice reinvestment to better fund health services as opposed to criminal justice systems.

It is a sentiment that is supported by Mental Illness Education ACT (MIEACT) in their submission to the injury.

“By investing in children and building their resilience we have the best chance of allowing them to thrive, reducing the growing burden on hospital emergency departments over time and other crisis service requirements such as mental health care plans, specialised mental health services, hospital admissions, alcohol and drug-related hospital admissions and mental health-related prescriptions,” the submission says.

The ACT recently moved to decriminalise cannabis in the Territory and a feasibility study into establishing a safe injecting facility for illicit drug users was given the green light in April.

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Is this bloke serious?

“There is no more stigma that you can put on someone than calling them a criminal for something that they do,”

Yeah, that’s kinda how it works. If you choose to commit crimes, you are labelled a criminal.
The absolute lack of personal responsibility is really quite disgusting. Drugs should NEVER be normalised or legalised. There is nothing positive about drug addiction. It ruins lives, and absolutely should be stigmatised. There is plenty of help available to people who want it. Pretending otherwise is dishonest.

Yes, SSEK, this bloke is serious.
I suspect though that we are not as far apart as it may seem. SSEK probably doesn’t like his house being done over any more than I do by people hanging out for drugs, or paying $415 per day (the highest in the country) to have those people kept in a prison from which they graduate with worse drug and mental health problems. I hope too that SSEK would be about as offended as I am by the ACT indigenous incarceration rate being 3398.6 offenders per 100,000 compared to 112 for non-indigenous Canberrans. Any drug treatment that results in 90% or more reductions in drug-related property crime and provides a solid basis for addressing entrenched disadvantage has my vote.
Yes I think we should agree on responsibility. I haven’t met a dependent drug user who doesn’t want to break their habit. But that’s not easy to do when you have finally resolved to get help and find that all the treatment agencies are full up so that you need to ring back the next day, the next week … because there are only half the treatment places available that are needed.
Where I feel we probably differ is in our commitment to walk in the steps of those on the margins. Even then, SSEK may have some sympathy for the thousands of middle-aged sufferers of chronic pain resulting from work or car accidents who no longer have ready access to powerful opiate painkillers. The recently released household survey and wastewater analyses show that ACT consumption of oxycodone is well above the national average and that this desperate search for relief is often accompanied by the use of illicit drugs. Prohibition is the most extreme form of nanny state overreach.

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