You know something is seriously wrong with current drug laws when a discussion about the issue brings together nearly 2,000 people in one place. That’s what happened when I visited Sydney’s magnificent Town Hall for the launch of Fair Treatment, a new campaign that seeks to improve access to treatment for the more than 200,000 Australians that struggle with addiction issues, but find it impossible to find the medical help they need and deserve.
Australia, like so many other countries, finds itself at the crossroads of the drug policy debate. With an average of 142 accidental overdose deaths a month, a doubling of fatalities in just a decade, Australians of all stripes have begun questioning the failed war on drugs. Demands are growing for an end to the needless criminalisation of people who use drugs, which has only worsened the awful spiral of addiction and marginalisation many are caught in.
The event in Sydney, the largest drug policy debate I’ve ever been part of, was hosted by the Uniting Church, which runs the Southern Hemisphere’s first medically supervised injection centre (MSIC) in Sydney’s King’s Cross neighbourhood. The MSIC is a remarkable facility that shows how focused harm reduction can not only alleviate suffering and give people who depend on injecting drug use a safe environment free from prosecution and stigma. It also saves lives. In 17 years of operation, the Centre has not experienced a single overdose death. Why aren’t there more facilities like that? At present, the US, ravaged by an unprecedented opioid crisis, does not have a single one.
While in Sydney, I had a chance to meet backstage with two remarkable and inspiring women, Shantell Irwin and Liz Gal, whose own journeys dealing with drug addiction are really illustrative of the problems so many Australians face. If more people understood the dramatic real-life stories behind every statistic, if they had a chance to learn what both Shantell and Liz had to go through, perhaps reform wouldn’t be such a difficult political issue.
On stage at the event, Sydney I was joined by the amazing Dr Marianne Jauncey, who runs the MSIC, and by Dr Khalid Tinasti, the Executive Secretary of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, of which I am a member. We all agreed that it’s time for Australia to turn a page and treat drug use as a health and social issue, not as a criminal one. It’s the only way of ending the suffering and to finally take control of drugs in a way that ends the waste of precious taxpayer resources.
The truth is that we all know what works and what doesn’t. In a drug-taking world, strict policing and the relentless pursuit of people who use drugs have done nothing to curb drug supply or demand, while harm reduction and access to treatment can make all the difference. For every dollar spent on treatment, society saves $7 in other costs. Yet, currently more than two thirds of Australia’s national drug policy budget are spent on supply reduction, while only 21 per cent go directly to treatment and, stunningly, just two per cent to harm reduction.
Fair Treatment, supported by over 60 partner organisations, seeks to change that and start a new conversation about much-needed reform in Australia. Beginning today, thousands of activists, allies and reform advocates will join a walk from Dubbo to House in Sydney, the distance a person in regional New South Wales may have to travel just to reach the drug treatment they need. Along the way, they will be gathering stories and signatures to support the cause so that all Australians, no matter where they are, can access the care they need.
Head over to the website to learn more about Fair Treatment.