• Medical experts who see these devastating results first-hand say our current approach to illicit drugs is creating an “active public health emergency”. (Tracey Nearmy, AAP )
Medical experts are calling the recent spate of drug overdoses a "public health emergency", and demonising drug users will only fuel the problem, writes Jill Stark.
By
Jill Stark

14 Mar 2017 - 11:35 AM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2017 - 12:10 PM

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, Australia’s war on drugs is madness in its purest form.

“Just say no” has been an abject failure. The law enforcement approach has not deterred users, nor has it made communities safer. It has only put lives at risk.

Last month, 25 people were taken to hospital after overdosing on the synthetic drug GHB at a music festival in Melbourne.

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On New Year’s Eve, a man died and two others were left on life support after taking an unknown substance at a dance party in southern Queensland.

A spate of overdoses linked to deadly batches of heroin have been reported across Australia. In fact, there have been

Medical experts who see these devastating results first-hand say our current approach to illicit drugs is creating an “active public health emergency”.

They point to evidence from overseas which shows that harm-minimisation measures such as pill-testing and supervised injecting rooms, saves lives.

The risk-taking, hedonism and experimentation of youth will not be curbed by wagging a disapproving finger.

And it’s not just doctors who say we must change tack.

In Victoria, a united front of police, paramedics, community workers and residents last month demanded a safe injecting room in the inner city suburb of Richmond, following an unprecedented 34 heroin deaths in the area in 2016.

Days later, the state’s coroner took the extraordinary step of urging the government to trial a supervised injecting facility, when handing down her findings in the inquest of the death of a 34-year-old mother-of-two who overdosed from heroin.

And still, the politicians think they know best. Despite many of his MPs privately supporting drug supervision to help reduce harm, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews ruled it out.

He later agreed to a parliamentary inquiry to investigate a trial but it faces strong opposition, just as every attempt to drag Australia’s drug laws into the 21st Century always does.

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All too often our elected leaders ignore the evidence in pursuit of votes. Hamstrung by conservatives and influential media commentators who demand a “tough on crime” answer to every societal ill, they airbrush out the facts and focus on their feelings.

They complain that emergency rooms should not be wasting time and resources treating those who choose to take a party pill, while at the same time furiously resisting every sensible measure that would keep them out of hospital.

They warn that allowing supervised injecting facilities will create “government-sanctioned drug ghettos” and increase drug use, blind to the fact that this hysterical, head-in-the-sand nonsense creates the very effect they seek to prevent.

The notion that taking steps to make drug users safer will somehow condone illegal drug-taking is simply not based on facts.

They point to evidence from overseas which shows that harm-minimisation measures such as pill-testing and supervised injecting rooms, saves lives.

It is premised on gut emotion, and the fallacy that criminalising drug takers sends a message that “drugs are bad”, and if you say that loud enough and long enough people will stop using them.

But here’s a newsflash: young people are already taking drugs. They know they’re illegal. They take them anyway. The risk-taking, hedonism and experimentation of youth will not be curbed by wagging a disapproving finger.

As drug reform campaigner and Canberra emergency consultant David Caldicott rightly points out, any parent who has lost a child to drugs has little time for the moral posturing that stands in the way of harm-minimisation measures.

“I have yet to meet with one, in the course of treating thousands of drug overdoses, who would not have done anything to ensure their child's survival. Not one who has said "I don't mind them dying, as long as their death serves as a lesson to others".

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While the media seem embroiled in a moral panic about methamphetamine or “ice”, those of us who actually work with overdose patients are nervously watching out for a far more dangerous drug: carfentanil.

And while politicians continue to use the sledgehammer of the law to tackle a medical issue, they simultaneously pull money out of treatment and ignore the inconvenient fact that more people are dying from legal prescription medication than all illicit drugs combined.

Australia, once a progressive leader on drug reform, is now lagging behind the rest of the world by continuing to demonise drug users. Last year, the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in 20 years re-examined the global war on drugs strategy.

Countries like Mexico and Columbia, which have borne the deadliest brunt of the law and order approach, led the call for change, in a bid to save lives.

They know that if we continue to do what we’ve always done we will get the same results. More death. More crime. More misery. And so they are turning to the evidence and treating drug dependency as a medical issue.

It is time that Australia did the same. We cannot allow our national drugs policy to be dictated by the feelings of ageing shock jocks, and conservative politician desperate to cling to power at any cost.

We must stick to the facts. It is the only way to save lives.

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