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Treating Ice Users Like Criminals Won't Fix The Problem

The criminal approach discourages young people seeking help if they get sick, criminalises low-level users who cause no harm and punishes people who have serious problems, rarely reaching the traffickers and suppliers.
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Addict in process of using.
RalphTV via Getty Images
Addict in process of using.

There are some indications that ice use is on the rise, with reports of the drug's availability increasing and cost decreasing, and growing waiting lists for rehabilitation programs.

To understand the problems associated with the drug I've spoken to health professionals, social workers, heard from people who have experienced addiction to the drug, and looked at the relevant research.

Ice can be addictive because it acts quickly with long-lasting effects. People who develop an addiction may lose their jobs, family and social connections and engage in crime to fund their habit. Chronic use of ice, at its worst, can lead to psychosis including confusion, delirium, panic, aggression and hallucination.

I am concerned that we address this issue without media hype and hysteria, moral stances and stigma so that we don't make the problem worse and stop people getting help.

Drug use is prevalent and many people use mood-enhancing drugs recreationally without impacts on themselves or others. Research suggests that 70 percent of people who use ice consume it less than once a month.

Yet governments continue to tackle the issue through law enforcement.

The drug-detection dog laws introduced in 2001 were supposed to identify drug trafficking and deter use. A 2006 Ombudsman review found they targeted low-level users, with most people searched not found with drugs. The Ombudsman recommended withdrawing the program, but drug dog searches have doubled since 2009 with 16,000 people subject to an intrusive search every year. During this time drug use increased from 12.1 percent to 13.8 percent.

Drug dog operations can increase the risk of harm when people consume all their supply prior to going out or on seeing police.

The criminal approach discourages young people seeking help if they get sick, criminalises low-level users who cause no harm and punishes people who have serious problems, rarely reaching the traffickers and suppliers.

Drug experts tell me that many prevention campaigns and media reports are damaging when they focus on extreme examples, stigmatising people who use ice, thereby discouraging them from seeking help.

A recent round-table of users organised by the NSW Users and AIDS Association, ACON and Positive Life, highlighted that the hysteria and stigma over ice prevents many from accessing services or asking family and community members for support.

A broad spectrum of people take drugs for different reasons and this won't change. We need a nuanced and informed approach that focuses on addressing problems based on sound strategy and evidence, in line with calls from Matt Noffs of the Noffs Foundation.

The small minority of people who develop drug dependencies account disproportionately for associated crime and community impacts, and need help to function in the community and get their lives back on track.

The Australian Drug Foundation identifies that drug dependencies often form where there is a history of social and personal disadvantage, temperament and personality traits, prenatal problems, adverse childhood experiences, poor education, lack of family bonding and social isolation and psychiatric disorders.

We must provide treatment for those with problems so they can lead quality lives, reconnect with their communities and secure employment. Sadly, the great majority of funding to address drug problems goes into prisons and policing, leaving people with problems without access to help.

An assessment of the social return on Mission Australia's Triple Care Farm rehabilitation centre at Knights Hill found the centre produced a three-dollar return for every dollar invested by improving the health and wellbeing of young people and reducing their use of medical treatment, homelessness services and juvenile justice.

Harm-reduction approaches are needed, including the distribution of pipes. Injecting ice is more dangerous than smoking because it achieves a higher blood concentration of the drug causing quicker and more intense effects, making it more addictive. Injecting poses other risks including skin rashes, track marks and vein damage, as well as blood-borne diseases if needles are shared.

We need more investment in new and effective treatments, including agonist treatments that work like methadone so that people can live in the community and work while they sort out their dependency. I'm pleased that St Vincent's Hospital's Stimulant Program plays a leading role in this area and provides important support and counselling for ice users to help them address their addiction to the drug.

We need to change the current emphasis on criminal sanctions which have failed to reduce use or harm. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has made it clear that decriminalisation of drug use for personal use is consistent with international drug protocols, and meets human rights obligations and must be considered.

If we want to address drug problems, including ice, we must engage with users to contribute to solutions rather than stigmatise and demonise them.

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