Help, not jail, credited for drug victories
THE dramatic drop in illegal drug use by Australians over the past decade — more marked than in any other country in the world — has been praised by a top international expert as a lesson from which other countries could learn.
United Nations drug authority Antonio Costa, executive director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime based in Vienna, ended a visit to Australia last week during which he attempted to understand the reasons behind the drop, talking to everyone from recovering addicts to the Prime Minister.
At the end of his trip he visited a rehabilitation centre, We Help Ourselves, in central Sydney.
Australia’s use of marijuana, heroin and amphetamines reached epidemic proportions in 1998, with 20 per cent of the population using illegal drugs and surveys showing some of the worst addiction rates in the world.
Since then there has been a 5 per cent drop, with rates continuing to trend sharply downwards. The level of heroin use in the community has dropped from 0.8 to 0.2 per cent of the adult population, and heroin overdoses have dropped from a peak of more than 1100 in 1999 to fewer than 400 today.
Costa, the world’s leading guru on drug prevention programs, says a report on Australia’s success story, Heading In The Right Direction, will be available within the month.
‘‘ What we are asking is why drug use in Australia has seen such an impressive drop,’’ he says.
He says court diversion programs, which offer addicts the choice of being treated like criminals or sent to rehabilitation centres, have taken many drug users out of the criminal justice system.
‘‘ If you are standing in the dock, what you want is options,’’ he says. ‘‘ Addiction is a sickness of the mind. I am pleading for greater recognition that addiction is an illness.’’
Costa says countries that have successfully battled high addiction rates have one thing in common — they pour large sums of money into rehabiliation services and treat addiction as a medical rather than law and order problem.
He says Australia’s success in tackling its high levels of drug use now need to be consolidated. ‘‘ One of the lessons I hope can be learnt from Australia’s experience is that other countries don’t have to get into such a severe situation before they act,’’ he says.
At the We Help Ourselves centre many recovering addicts are insistent that the country needs more detoxification and rehabilitation services, and that waiting lists are still way too long.
A 31-year-old Adelaide man says his use of heroin and ice had spiralled out of control, leaving him depressed to the point of suicide and living on the streets. He became so frightened of what he felt sure was his impending death that he sought help.
‘‘ You lose the ability to even wash yourself, to do all the normal things,’’ he says. ‘‘ There are people dying because they can’t get into rehabilitation, there are waiting lists or they just don’t know there are ways out. There needs to be more effort to get people into recovery.’’
Executive director of We Help Ourselves, Garth Popple, says a significant factor in turning Australian drug use around has been the unprecedented $1.5 billion in funding provided through the National Drug Strategy over the last decade. ‘‘ Access to detoxification and rehabilitation services has been the key,’’ he says.
Doctor John Herron, Chairman of the Australian National Council on Drugs, says thousands of lives have been saved. ‘‘ The visit to Australia by the world’s leading drug expert shows we can be proud of our record,’’ he says.
‘‘ Tackling major traffickers has dried up street supplies of drugs, at the same time as a substantial increasing in treatment availability has led to many people seeking help and returning to productive lives.’’