Help, not jail, cred­ited for drug vic­to­ries

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health - John Sta­ple­ton

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.’’

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