‘The stigma holds you back’: Public mood shifts on illegal drugs – Sydney Morning Herald

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Rebecca has seen and lived the dark side of drug addiction. She grew up in a violent home with a stepmother who was a heavy cannabis user.
By the age of eight, Rebecca was smoking cigarettes. By 12, she was living on the streets and using alcohol and cannabis. By her late 20s, she was addicted to methamphetamine, also known as ice, and that’s when life became “really unmanageable”.
Rebecca says the criminal stigma of drug use follows you years into recovery.Credit:Dean Sewell
“It went on for about two years and I ended up homeless, lost my children, and fleeing a domestic violence relationship, all the chaos of deep addiction,” she says.
Rebecca, who lives in the inner west of Sydney and works in community services, got help to quit and has been clean for eight years. She requested her last name be withheld.
Rebecca is convinced, both from her personal and professional experience, that drug addiction should be treated as a health issue.
“It really is a mental illness where people use or drink against their will, desperately wanting to be able to stop,” she says. “We’re still throwing them in jail for having one point of ice on them or $20 worth of marijuana … when clearly this person no longer even has a choice over what they’re doing.”
Rebecca says the criminal stigma “follows you and holds you back” well into recovery – she is jumping through hoops to remain in the industry where she’s worked for the past six years, while many of her friends are still regularly searched by police on the streets or find it hard to get certain jobs.
“It brings up a lot of shame over something I was powerless over at the time,” she says.
Rebecca’s support for decriminalisation places her among the vanguard of changing attitudes in society.
Research published in Drug and Alcohol Review in December 2021 suggests a transformation in the public’s views on drugs over the past decade. But while Rebecca’s views apply to all illegal drugs, the general public draws a sharp distinction between different drugs.
The national survey found 26 per cent of Australians – just over one in four – supported legalising the personal use of cannabis in 2013. By 2019 this had risen to 41 per cent.
Over the same time, support for legalising the personal use of ecstasy rose from 7 per cent to 9 per cent, while for cocaine, it went from 6 per cent to 8 per cent.
Yet there was little softening of views about heroin or methamphetamine, with support for legalising personal use hovering around the 5 per cent mark.
Professor Don Weatherburn from the University of NSW National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, a co-author of the paper, says there are significant harms associated with prohibition of drug use.
“People who get arrested for no other offence than using drugs end up with a criminal record that can follow them through the rest of their lives, and make them less likely to get a job,” he says.
Professor Weatherburn, the former head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, says he was not surprised by the support for legalising cannabis. He was more surprised by the growing support for legalising ecstasy and cocaine, yet still extremely strong opposition to legalising methamphetamine or heroin.
He attributes it to the stereotypes of “people behaving violently under the influence of methamphetamine or committing robberies under the influence of heroin”.
But while legalisation was a minority view, the researchers also found the general mood of the public was “against really punitive sanctions”, with declining support for imprisonment.
Support for either no sanction or health treatment rather than punishment was highest among people living in the major cities, with a university education and earning more than $52,000.
Weatherburn says the inspiration for the research was the huge public discussion about drug laws following the ice inquiry in NSW.
“It’s about … encouraging them to think about what they would want if a member of their family developed a drug dependency issue.”
The Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’, handed to the NSW government in January 2020, recommended decriminalisation of drugs and reframing substance use as a health issue with greater investment in treatment.
More than two years later, the government still has not provided its response, though it did reject a number of recommendations outright, including pill testing and a second supervised injecting centre for the state.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman says the response to the ice inquiry remains under active consideration, and he expects an announcement in the near future. However, it has been delayed several times and last November he said he would be disappointed not to have the response released by Christmas.
Several factors could have slowed down the process in the past few months, including the combination of a new Premier, Police Minister and Police Commissioner, the Omicron outbreak and the byelections this weekend.
But Professor Dan Howard, SC, who led the inquiry, last May described the delay as “a disgrace”, while an alliance of peak medical bodies put out a joint statement in October saying that COVID-19 made dealing with addiction issues even more important.
Speakman says the delays reflect the complexity of issues, which sit across several portfolios. “There are over 100 recommendations that we’re considering closely, and we want to get it right,” he says.
Government sources have told the Herald the response will be about all drugs, not just ice, and focus on public health spending. Remaining discussion is focused on legal options such as pre-court diversions and an infringement scheme as an alternative to decriminalisation.
For example, the submission from the former police commissioner opposed decriminalisation but suggested the increased use of criminal infringement notices for minor drug possession offences, as currently used at music festivals. If adopted, the consequence would be that drug possession would remain a crime, but police would have the ability to issue infringement notices that don’t result in a criminal record.
In 2019, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, found 43 per cent of Australians have used a drug illicitly in their lifetime, and 16.4 per cent in the past 12 months.
But in a generational shift, young people are more likely to be sober than in the past – back in 2001, people in their 20s were the most likely of all age groups to have used an illicit drug in their lifetime, but by 2019 it was people in their 40s.
(This is a trend that applies to alcohol as well. The survey found teenagers start drinking an average of one-and-a-half years later in 2019 than 2001, and the proportion of 20-somethings who don’t drink at all has trebled to almost one in four.)
The institute’s survey found three out of five Australians supported the availability of pill testing at designated sites such as music festivals, about two out of three supported needle and syringe exchange programs, and just under half supported supervised injecting rooms. When asked where money should be spent, people allocated more funds to education than to law enforcement for the first time in 2019.
Uniting, the services arm of the Uniting Church, has mirrored this survey in key seats in NSW, proving to politicians that support for treating drug use as a health issue rather than a crime is high even in the most conservative electorates.
Founding medical director Ingrid van Beek, left, and her successor Marianne Jauncey at the Kings Cross injecting centre.Credit:Louise Kennerley
Uniting runs the Kings Cross injecting centre, which opened 21 years ago this May when Bob Carr was NSW premier, in what its founding medical director described last year as “the last brave thing that happened” in drug reform. It was the first of its kind in Australia but its success in preventing overdose deaths, referring addicts to treatment, and keeping drug use off the streets means other states have followed.
For the past few years the Uniting Church has been advocating for decriminalisation of all illegal drugs and an emphasis on health treatment, through the Fair Treatment campaign.
Uniting’s head of advocacy, Emma Maiden, says the campaign started in 2016 when a church member whose son died of an overdose succeeded in winning the church’s support for decriminalisation. After extensive work behind the scenes, the church launched a public campaign in 2018.
She says Uniting identified a lack of services in regional areas and was instrumental in getting Premier Dominic Perrottet, then treasurer, to support the $7.5 million drug rehabilitation centre in Dubbo announced at the end of 2020.
As well as public advocacy, Uniting has had hundreds of individual conversations with ordinary Australians about drug policy. So what does it take to change hearts and minds?
“It’s about encouraging people to think about their values, and then encouraging them to think about what they would want if a member of their family developed a drug dependency issue or perhaps with occasional drug use,” Maiden says.
“Would they want them to go to jail or be taken before the court? Or would they want them to connect with the health service?”
Some organisations working on drug policy support the full legalisation of drugs, because it would break users’ dependency on dealers and the underworld. Others, like Uniting, favour decriminalisation.
Decriminalisation generally means removing the criminal sanctions for the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use, while drug trafficking and dealing would remain crimes. Personal possession could be made legal, or become a civil offence.
Rebecca grew up in Canberra where cannabis was decriminalised for cultivation and possession for personal use, and she wonders if the lack of criminal sanction made her stepmother’s use more flagrant.
“That’s the double-edged sword,” she acknowledges.
Yet she still favours decriminalisation – as long as it comes with increased public health spending.
“We already have very limited services with long wait lists, so that would need to increase dramatically to support the system change,” she says.
National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline – 1800 250 015
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