Of all the various afflictions one may suffer from, none evokes less sympathy and more ire than drug dependancy.
While people suffering from mental illness are often dismissed as faking it for attention (especially those suffering from depression) people suffering from drug dependancy are actively scorned by society.
In my experience, much of the anger directed towards those suffering from addiction is more often than not a reaction to the effects on society more than the actual use of a substance.
It's true that drug use amongst socially and economically disadvantaged populations is a major cause of many different types of crime in Australia.
Because we look at crime statistics like this and see that drug use is a major factor it's very hard to stay compassionate towards people suffering from addiction.
What we need to remember is that drug use and problems with addiction are ubiquitous at all levels of Australian society, it's just that people who are disadvantaged are more vulnerable to, and less equipped to deal with, the chaotic influence that addiction has on their lives.
WE ARE ALL DRUG USERS
It’s hard to accept that drug use can be a “normal” part of someone’s life; yet statistically, it is a normal part of many Australian family’s lives.
In the 2012 United Nations World Drug Report, Australians and New Zealanders were listed as the biggest recreational drug users in the world.1
Alcohol and tobacco are the most commonly used substances in Australia. Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug (particularly amongst young adults), while other illicit drugs like heroin, steroids and cocaine share varying degrees of use.
A government report claims figures on cocaine use are a bit uncertain, and possibly underrepresented.The monitoring of cocaine use only encompasses the lower to middle classes, and doesn’t extend to those users at the higher end of the socioeconomic scale. (Users in this group are less likely to participate in surveys or participate in public treatment plans where their use may be recorded.)
As the above percentages show, the licit drugs alcohol and tobacco were the most commonly used substances in 1995 and 1998. They also were – and still are – widely accepted as “normal” substances for regular use by many Australians.
According to Drug Info3, alcohol is a primary health concern as well as the primary substance used in Australia. Approximately one in five people drink to the extent that they risk causing harm to themselves. It is also a contributing factor to injury, homicide and suicide, the three primary causes of teenage death, and in 2005 alcohol caused twice as many deaths than road accidents.
Cannabis is the most frequently used illicit drug in Australia, and the most commonly used drug amongst young adults aged twelve to seventeen. Almost 30 per cent of the population support its legalisation and it accounts for around 50 per cent of substance abuse treatments, while heroin and amphetamines account for just under 20 per cent. This shows both the “normality” of cannabis use, but also the dangers in that normality, meaning the risks of the drug are being taken for granted.
WHAT IF NO ONE IS THERE TO CATCH YOU WHEN YOU FALL?
When a young person first encounters addiction and addictive substances, the role that their family plays in preventing them from being consumed by that addiction is crucial.
Research shows that the way families communicate and the way young people are supported are crucial elements to reducing the risks of drug use. By targeting what Drug Info refers to as “protective factors”, families, schools and communities can make an ongoing positive impact while reducing drug risks.
These protective factors include good communication between parents and children, a sense of belonging and positive experiences at school, supportive friends, opportunities to contribute to the community, and respect and acceptance. Increasing these and other protective factors helps to reduce the risks of drug use, just as family involvement in prevention programs helps to reduce abuse.
Conversely, family relationships have such a huge impact on young people that evidence shows when young people feel isolated, unsupported or disrespected by their families these experiences can increase the risks of drug use. The importance of family and the role it plays in young people’s lives cannot be underrated.
THE SOCIO-ECONOMICS OF TREATMENT
People with more resources and better support are able to cope with the problems caused by addiction without it becoming a public issue. When someone rich has a drug problem, they can not only afford the drugs themselves, but can also afford to get treatment.
A website called The Good Drugs Guide reports4:
“The average cost of inpatient drug rehab programs is about $7,000 per month, or around $4,000 per year for the outpatient treatment programs on the low end of the spectrum. And since rehabilitation is not the quickest of processes, a long-term inpatient drug rehab center could cost you $30,000 or more.”
To be clear from the outset, I believe that the social sector, including Noffs Foundation and our own youth rehabs, run the best the treatment centres out there.
Plus it's mostly free across the board for people need rehab clinics.
The costs here are not indicative of all rehab but treatment centres do cost the organisations who run them a lot of money.
For instance, we are only able to run our rehabs because, while they are mostly funded by government, they are augmented by public donations.
This is to point out that they are vital services and they require energy and funds to make the available.
Uniting Care ReGen in Victoria for example, point out that Odyssey House for adults is far cheaper to run than any of the prices quoted above.
Private treatment, on the other hand, is so expensive in Australia that people are flying to Chiang Mai, Thailand, in order to receive treatment at an upmarket rehab facility called The Cabin. A third of the patients there are Australian, and half of those are from WA. The management says that people go to the cabin for anonymity, and their clientele includes business people, housewives and medical professionals.
Australians at The Cabin pay $12,000 for a twenty-eight day program – showing privacy and anonymity come at a price.
DRUG ADDICTION IS A HEALTH AND SOCIAL ISSUE THAT NEEDS HEALTH AND SOCIAL INTERVENTIONS
The first thing we need to do to offer better help to those in need is to rethink and redefine drug addiction. The issue needs to be seen for what it is – arguably Australia's number one health and social problem - and it needs to be funded and resourced as such.
The majority of money spent dealing with drug addiction is on drug law enforcement, but criminalising those in need is not the answer.
We need to take treatment and rehab seriously and we need government to assist organisations to expand their resources to make the safety net wider.
Again, I cannot stress enough that public clinics are vital for helping people get back on track.
That's not to take away from private clinics - it's just that public clinics do an incredible job. We run a public clinic so of course I advocate for public clinics everywhere.
Ok, so say that you don't believe that we should be so generous with those affected by drugs. Let's take that point further - criminal punishments rarely result in reduced or discontinued drug use, as drug addiction by definition means users are dependent on a drug and will continue to use regardless of the consequences. Drug treatment, unlike criminal punishments, considers health and social factors, which benefit not just drug users but their families and the community as a whole.
People rarely consider the social effects of drug use, but they can in many ways be just as damaging as physical or psychological harm – if not more so. This is because the effects of drug addiction are not confined to the addict, but affect everyone.
Given the fact that almost everyone in the country will have someone close to them suffer from problems of substance abuse, it hardly seems reasonable to become angry with those who are most vulnerable and least capable of dealing with it.
Yes it's frustrating as a society to have to deal with the criminal outcomes of drug use amongst disadvantaged populations, but criminalising their addiction is not the solution.
If they were your son, your daughter, your brother, your sister, your mother, your father; wouldn't you see their addiction as a treatable affliction rather than a fundamental character flaw?
If you had the means, wouldn't you seek the best care and not rest until that person you loved so dearly was better and could lead a normal Life?
Well, as a society we do have the means.
Drug treatment doesn't have to be so expensive that only the rich and famous can afford it - in fact most non-profit drug treatment is free but only because the government and the public knows just how important they are.
But again, rehabs still require your support.
But before we find the capacity in our pocket to help those in need, we first need to find the capacity in our hearts to overcome our prejudices.
Again, and this one is for my friend Paul in Melbourne, non-profit rehab services do an incredible job. They are a major safety net for people dependant on drugs. Their benefits easily outweigh their costs and their costs are usually a lot cheaper than private clinics.
Maybe this Christmas you might want to visit a non-profit rehab and see what an amazing job they do?
1. Aussies the biggest recreational drug users in the world - report by Paul Toohey
2. Measuring drug use patterns in Queensland through wastewater analysis by Jeremy Prichard, Foon Yin Lai, Paul Kirkbride, Raimondo Bruno, Christoph Ort, Steve Carter, Wayne Hall, Coral Gartner, Phong K Thai and Jochen F Mueller; ISSN 1836-2206; Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, June 2012
3. Statistics by Australian Drug Foundation
4. Drug Treatment Financing Options by The Good Drugs Guide