There is perhaps no greater anguish than that of a parent who has witnessed their child suffer and die. But the grief is compounded when they see others go through the same preventable trauma and loss year after year, decade after decade, while governments ignore the evidence that could save the lives of their children.

That’s the position Tony Trimingham is in.

Tony lost his 23 year old son Damien to a drug overdose 20 years ago. In the time since, thousands more parents have gone through the same experience and Tony can’t understand why Australian governments continue to let that happen.

He made an impassioned plea for law reform at the launch of Australia21’s latest illicit drug report, ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’

“I don’t support, condone or want to promote drug use at all. The reality is, though, that people do use drugs – people enjoy using drugs, a lot of people use them without any major problems.

“But it’s 20 years and one week since my son died of a heroin overdose and that of course is my family’s tragedy and always will be.

“The greater tragedy for Australia is that since he died, up to 20,000 people have died in Australia from illicit drugs –  20,000. Most of them under the age of 40. Now if we had that many deaths for any other cause… I’m seeing, you know, the reports about quad bike deaths, about fishermen off rocks dying and there’s a huge outcry about that… but these are ‘just drug users’ and other terms that people use.”

Tony’s son could be ‘anyone’s child’

Tony’s son Damien didn’t fit the drug user stereotype. He was a high achiever, an excellent sportsperson and generally well-regarded. While at school on Sydney’s affluent North Shore he played football, went to state athletics, was a house captain and a prefect. He was the sort of person you’d expect to do really well in life.

But after a year of trying to get clean, one day he had a fight with his girlfriend, drank too much and shot up.

In an interview a couple years ago, Tony explained what happened to Damien next.

“It was what they call the trifecta — he hadn’t been using so his tolerance had dropped, he’d been drinking, and he went to an isolated place. A security guard on patrol saw Damien sitting there and had to call for another guard as per their protocol, by which time he had slumped forward and it was already too late.”

Damien’s death is still traumatic for his family and hearing similar strories triggers their grief all over again.

“The pain has changed. It comes in waves, it’s very difficult. But especially it being a drug related death, it’s difficult because you know that the death’s preventable… It’s a wasted, pointless death.”

“The approaches that we’ve made are not working,” he told the audience at Australia21’s report launch.

“Twenty years ago we could have had a heroin prescription trial – how many of the 20,000 would have been saved if that trial had gone ahead? My challenge is not to be conservative about this but to go forward, to do some brave things,” he said.

“I don’t want families to go through what my family went through and yet two days ago I spoke to one of our volunteers in Adelaide whose son died that day from an overdose. It just breaks my heart to talk to these people.”

What is most frustrating for Tony is that this has all been said before. Yet Australian governments continue to allow young people to die and become criminalised, through their reluctance to be brave and bold enough to make a difference.

Governments are putting more lives at risk instead of saving them

In fact, the punitive language around drug use continues to be exploited politically, as parties try to win votes with the tired old mantra of ‘tough on crime’. In South Australia, the Opposition has been panned for promising drug sniffer dogs in schools. Meanwhile the federal government is pushing ahead with the threat to drug test welfare recipients, despite overwhelming evidence that it won’t improve outcomes for addicts and could make the problem a whole lot worse.

Healthcare professionals are denouncing the move as seriously out of step with clinical evidence, international best practice and their commitment to do no harm.