Dealing with the reality about drugs

As chair of the Victorian Parliamentary Law Reform, Road and Community Safety Committee, I have just returned from overseas where our committee learned much about drug policies, treatment and other actions taking place to address drug use challenges. We visited supervised drug consumption facilities and treatment clinics trying to reduce overdoses and provide support for people with addictions. We also met with health authorities and police to learn about how they were attempting to provide the best outcomes for their communities.

What is clear is that police alone cannot keep drugs out of any community. In Portugal, we saw that for many years now, people apprehended in possession of illegal drugs for their personal use are no longer put through the courts and instead are directed to a less formal commission, where they can be connected to services which can help address their drug use from a health perspective. However, one of the experiences which stood out most for me was our visit to a music festival near London. The event, run over four days, attracted thousands of festival goers. Clear warnings were advertised, advising attendees that they were not to bring in alcohol or illegal substances and that police would be in attendance. Security guards with sniffer dogs patrolled all entry points and the police presence inside the festival was obvious, although police tried to maintain a spirit of good will.

For the second time a private organisation relying on volunteers, mostly university chemistry students, offered drug testing from their tent. As well as offering to test samples of drugs brought in by festival goers, the group provided fact sheets and advice about drugs. By the time we arrived at the tent, more than 400 people had come to have drugs, mostly in pill form, tested. Many more came during the time we attended, ranging in age from late teens to people in their 40s and 50s.

This demonstrated to me that no matter what governments or police may do, many people will still access drugs and bring them to events. 

This event, as well as visits to the Downtown East area of Vancouver – where heroin injecting was apparent –  demonstrated to me that when dealing with concerns about drug harm in our community, we have to deal with realities. It may be appropriate to ban the use of some drugs, but no matter how much we increase police resourcing we will never stop people accessing.

In dealing with this reality, we must work to provide good education and better support. We also need to provide appropriate health support to people who become addicted to drugs or who may be vulnerable to black marketeers selling contaminated products. Keeping them alive at times of vulnerability is the first step to an opportunity for a better future.

I have learnt that many drug deaths are preventable. To deny the realities will only see more mothers lose sons or daughters.

Our committee has already held many public hearings in Melbourne and we have visited sites of concern in the Richmond area. I look forward to continuing with further public hearings and site visits to gain further advice and community feedback over the coming months, before our committee decides upon what recommendations it will make to government next March.

On the issue of crystal methamphetamine, it appears Australia is more seriously affected than any of the countries we visited. More work needs to be done to reduce its use and develop treatment options.

Geoff Howard is Buninyong MP.