Last year the Abbott government spent $9m on a TV advertising campaignthat filled our screens with a crazed man trashing his workplace, a deranged son knocking his mother to the floor, and a frail young girl frantically picking at her scab-covered skin. It was meant to make us stop using ice.
The National Ice Action Plan report released on Sunday subtlety indicates these scare campaigns don’t work. It doesn’t go further and say they backfire but people, especially young people, ridicule those images. In particular, these campaigns make it harder to reach, educate and support those using ice, and because they reinforce the stigma of drug use, they lead drug users to remain secretive.
So, is the new report going to provide us with a better response to ice? On the surface it appears comprehensive. It is lengthy and detailed, and the publicity accompanying its release has focused on the failure of the policing response and the undeniable need for increased treatment services and options.
However, close reading of the plan raises serious concerns. Disappointingly, it reflects a return to an old and failed response to drugs. It exclusively focuses on strategies for preventing people from beginning to use ice and getting users to stop by providing increased and easier access to treatment. It is the old mantra: “Don’t take drugs and, if you do, then stop.”
It ignores and conflicts with long standing drug policy held by Australia, many other countries, and by the World Health Organisation. There are three components to existing Australian drug policy – supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction.
Supply reduction aims to reduce the availability of drugs. Demand reduction aims to educate about drug use and prevent people from taking drugs. Harm reduction acknowledges that some people will use drugs and tries to assist them to maintain health and well being while they are using. These three elements are accepted as essential and effective.
The report doesn’t simply ignore harm reduction. It has a slight reference to it in the appendix and comments that it was proposed by some, including experts, but largely was not prevalent in community consultations. Many ordinary Australians are deeply concerned about ice but that does not make them experts in what to do about it.
The greatest concern, however, is that the report reframes and reinterprets harm reduction by focusing on the harms created by ice and uses this as evidence for the need for treatment services. This is a serious and dangerous reinterpretation of government policy, and of what is accepted by specialists in the field.
It raises the question of why the report placed more emphasis on the opinions of concerned people in the community and not on the advice from those who know what they are talking about. Many ordinary Australians are deeply concerned about ice but that does not make them experts in what to do about it.
Harm reduction is essential is because it provides proven ways of communicating with people who are using ice. The report concentrates on the role of families, communities, doctors, and alcohol and drug workers in reaching those likely to use, or who are using, ice.
This will have some impact but fails to recognise that many people, especially young people, do not talk to their parents if they are using drugs. Overall, they won’t talk to older people or to professionals. Yes, these people have a role when someone gets into trouble with ice – or any drug – but by then it is apparent that people have a problem. Meanwhile, many are quietly and furtively using ice and the report does not give attention to ways to reach them effectively.
As the report states, ice is remarkable for its effect on people. It makes you feel wonderful, energised and omnipotent. This is why ice is so popular.
Many ice users will not identify with the horror stories about what ice does. Nor will they tell an older person they are using ice when they know that they will be told to stop. Instead, they are more likely to talk with someone who is not judgmental about their drug use.
In Australia, we have models for this where information, education and support is provided, often by peers, for example other young people, who have experience with ice. This creates a unique space in which people can talk about their drug use and allows for a conversation that encourages safety and well being. It also allows for discussion about problems and support to seek help. The report is silent on this.
The underlying principles of this National Ice Action Plan report are a set-back to all that has been achieved in knowing how best to deal with the reality of drugs and drug use. The plan appears to be comprehensive and strategic but it has a huge hole in it.
Read more articles by Bill O’Loughlin