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Shantell Irwin is a country mother who’s desperate to beat addiction. But like 200,000 other Australians, she’s been unable to access the drug and alcohol services she needs.

That’s why she was the first person to take a step on a 400-kilometre Long Walk to Treatment calling for law reform that will help reduce drug harms, especially in regional Australia.

The walk is part of the Fair Treatment campaign led by Uniting, which runs the southern hemisphere’s first Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Over 17 years the MSIC has reversed more than 8,000 overdoses without a single death. Yet across Australia, drug-induced deaths are at their highest in 20 years.

Fair Treatment is supported by a large group of not-for-profit partners, including Australia21. Like a rapidly growing number of Australians, we want problematic drug use dealt with as a health and social issue instead of public money being wasted on the ineffective and damaging “tough on crime” approach of punishing people who often need help.

No-one sets out to become dependent on drugs, let alone destroy their lives and the lives of people around them. Like any illness, addiction must be treated with appropriate health care.

The repeal of criminal penalties and better funding for treatment services across Australia would allow people like Shantelle Irwin from central western New South Wales to access long-stay live-in rehabilitation in their own communities.

Along the Long Walk to Treatment, Shantell and other supporters are collecting petition signatures which are being displayed on Google Maps every day, digitally drawing the line they’re travelling from Dubbo to Sydney to highlight the need for change. You can watch Shantell’s confronting story by clicking here.

Sir Richard Branson, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, launched the Fair Treatment campaign saying Ms Irwin’s long journey to recovery is faced by too many Australians.

“Strict policing and the relentless pursuit of people who use drugs have done nothing to curb drug supply or demand, while harm reduction and access to treatment can make all the difference,” he said.

“For every dollar spent on treatment, society saves $7 in other costs. Yet, currently more than two thirds of Australia’s national drug policy budget are spent on supply reduction, while only 21 per cent go directly to treatment and, stunningly, just two per cent to harm reduction.”

Our drug laws are hurting people

Dr Khalid Tinasti, General Secretary of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, also addressed the crowd of thousands who gathered for the Fair Treatment launch, saying decades of flawed laws and media propaganda have unfairly stigmatised people who use drugs.

“The problem that we have is not only with drugs that could be risky, but most of the harms are coming from the policies that we’re putting in place,” he said.

That is also the conclusion of a ground breaking Australia21 report, being released to mark the end of the Long Walk to Treatment on 2 November 2018. We All Pay The Price finds that many health and social harms are created or worsened by our current drug policies. These include barriers to accessing treatment.

The report explores the complex two-way interactions between the punitive approach to drug use and problems including poverty, social disadvantage, unemployment, homelessness, family violence, child protection interventions, mental illness, stigma, discrimination and suicide. It calls for the removal of criminal sanctions for consumption and a boost in funding for treatment, to reduce the health, social and economic costs of drug harms ultimately borne by all Australians.

We All Pay The Price is the product of an unprecedented Roundtable collaboration between experts in drug law, drug treatment and community welfare. The diverse participants included representatives from the Kings Cross MSIC, Uniting ReGen, Anglicare Australia, the Noffs Foundation, the ACT Council of Social Services, the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, the Penington Institute, Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform, the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, the ACU Institute of Child Protection Studies, the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and high profile addiction specialists, sociologists and criminologists, as well as participants with lived experience of drug use and imprisonment.

The legitimacy of these voices cannot be ignored.

Planning the path ahead

Australia21 is also supporting the Take Control campaign for safer, saner drug laws. Take Control is a community-driven initiative backed by the Ted Noffs Foundation, grounded in the reality that telling kids to “just say no” rarely works.

Take Control has a common sense plan:

  • Roll out pill testing services nationally to reduce harm at music festivals and parties

  • Expand treatment services for people suffering from drug problems

  • Establish more drug monitoring rooms to save lives and improve communities

  • Enhance engagement services for disadvantaged young people

  • End criminal charges that make getting help harder and ruin young lives for minor possession of illicit drugs.

You can make a difference Lone voices tend to get lost. But the chorus of reasonable people demanding evidence-based law reform is sending a powerful message to Australia’s leaders: our current drug policies are hurting the people they’re meant to help and now is the time to put health and safety first. So please take this opportunity to speak up with the rest of us. You can help Take Control by clicking here. You can help draw the line on drug policy by adding your signature to the Long Walk to Treatment petition here. Don’t put it off! Every day that we persist with the failed War on Drugs instead of focusing on effective harm reduction puts more Australians at risk.

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