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Treat addiction as health issue, not crime – experts

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Australian governments are continuing to ignore the recommendations of the Ice Taskforce to treat ice addiction as a health and social issue, rather than a criminal justice problem, two prominent drug law reform advocates say.

Dr Matthew Frei, the clinical director of Turning Point, and Dr Alex Wodak from St Vincent’s Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Service, say that the prevailing theme of the Ice Taskforce report was an emphasis on drug treatment over law enforcement, but governments had failed to act.

“Governments continue to define the issue as primarily a criminal justice problem, use pejorative terms when referring to people who use drugs, and generously support law enforcement measures while parsimoniously funding health and social interventions,” they wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia.

“Australian Commonwealth, State and Territory governments allocated about two-thirds of drug spending to law enforcement and only 9 per cent for prevention, 21 per cent for drug treatment, and 2 per cent to harm reduction over the 2009-10 financial year.

“After decades of this approach, Australia’s illicit drug market is expanding. Not only are illicit drugs easy to obtain, but prices have fallen and many newly identified psychoactive drugs have appeared, often more dangerous than older drugs.

“Over recent decades, drug-related deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence appear to have increased.

“Vast sums spent on criminal justice measures have only succeeded in making a bad problem much worse.”

Ice, or crystalline methylamphetamine, now dominates the market, compared with less potent powder forms of the drug.

“While the Ice Taskforce acknowledgment of the role of treatment is positive, it follows years of parsimonious funding for drug treatment that has left Australia with an inflexible, poor quality system with limited capacity,” Dr Frei and Dr Wodak wrote.

“This would not be considered acceptable anywhere else in the health sector.”

However, there were some promising signs.

“An encouraging aspect of the Taskforce recommendations was the provision of Medicare item numbers for the relatively new discipline of addiction medicine,” they said.

“This was implemented in November 2016, ending many years of struggle for this important specialty.

“[This] will help addiction medicine recruit new trainees, and build a specialist alcohol and other drug sector.”

Maria Hawthorne