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.
Among them is Dr Alex Wodak, Australia21 Director and President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, who was stunned by the Turnbull Government’s decision and accused it of putting lives at risk.
Dr Wodak has made clear, logical arguments against stripping people with alcohol and drug problems of income support payments in a GetUp! campaign.
He discussed the flawed policy with the Studio 10 panel recently.
“Frankly, bad policy has been good politics for a long time and here we have a government that is, let’s face it, trailling badly in the polls… and they’re panicking. So they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel and throwing mud at people who really should be pulled up, not pushed down.”
He said there are fairer, more compassionate, more effective drug policies right across the world.
“Countries one after the other are giving up this idea of trying to punish people, drug users, into submission and recognising that everyone’s better off – drug users, their family and the community – by helping these people more.
“The Netherlands started that in the ’70’s, then Switzerland in the ’90’s, Portugal in 2001 and now we’ve got a raft of countries that are starting to move towards a much more reasonable and evidence-based and compassionate approach, which also protects their human rights.
“They’re our brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. They’re us.”
UK’s $2.6b drug law enforcement approach written off as a failure
Meanwhile, in the UK, the official evaluation of the government’s 2010 – 2016 anti-drug strategy has been quietly released, without mention in any official press release. The Times headline summed up the finding of the cross-government audit: ‘Billions spent enforcing drug laws have little effect’.
“The evaluation is a damning indictment of the UK’s enforcement led approach to drugs; not only its failure and futility, but its counterproductivity. Most striking is the section on enforcement – where the malfunctioning nature of prohibition becomes most apparent.”
Direct quotes from the report speak for themselves.
“There is, in general, a lack of robust evidence as to whether capture and punishment serves as a deterrent for drug use” “There is very limited evidence of the impact of stop and search on restricting supply.”
“Activity solely to remove drugs from the market, for example, drug seizures, has little impact on availability.”
“Illicit drug markets are resilient and can quickly adapt to even significant drug and asset seizures. Even though enforcement may cause wholesale prices to vary, street‑level prices are generally maintained through variations in purity.”
“However, there are potential unintended consequences of enforcement activity such as violence related to drug markets and the negative impact of involvement with the criminal justice system.” “…including unemployment and harm to families – parental imprisonment is a risk factor for child offending, mental health problems, drug abuse and unemployment amongst others.”
“Due to the absence of sufficient data on spend or the direct impact of activities it has not been possible to produce value for money estimates for enforcement or enforcement‑related activities.”
Transform’s frustration is frighteningly familiar in Australia, where drug policies are modelled on the same flawed law enforcement strategy. It says:
“Depressingly the findings of the evaluation are not new. They closely echo analysis from many NGOs (including Transform), independent commissions (Police Foundation, RSA, UKDPC) and academics over the years. As well as Whitehall analysis from the ACMD – particularly with regard to reducing record death rates, No 10 strategy unit (2003), the Home Affairs Select Committee, The Science and Technology Select Committee, and the Public Accounts Select Committee.
“The ongoing commitment to punitive prohibitions has never been about evidence – it is a political programme serving other political and ideological interests.”
That seems to be the same reason Australian federal, state and territory governments of all political persuasions continue to adhere to the hollow ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric.
Teaching young Australians to be Smarter About Drugs
Australia21 believes one of the most important ways to improve drug and alcohol strategies is through better engagement with young Australians. We need to understand more clearly what drives people to take drugs and how to minimise harms and prevent the dangerous substance abuse that leads to deaths in all too many cases and a life-damaging prison sentence in lots of others.
Dr Wodak says there are three essential ingredients to drug education for young people.
“Firstly, it’s got to be realistic. It’s got to be about the world we live in, not the world that some of us might like to live in. It’s got to recognise that drugs have always been around and presumably always will be around,” he said.
“Secondly, it’s got to focus on trying to reduce harms from drugs. Drug use in itself is not the harm, it’s the harm that drugs cause and drug policies that should be the focus of our attention.
“And thirdly, it’s got to have an element of participation. Young people have got to be involved in the design of these interventions – and when I say involved I mean meaningfully involved, not symbolically involved. Get the young people to tell us what we should be telling other young people, get them to tell us where we’ve got it wrong and listen to what they say, so it’s about teamwork with active involvement of young people.
“If we have youth drug education of that kind, we won’t have the terrible mess-ups like we had in NSW not so long ago with the ‘stoner sloth’ campaign, which quite appropriately got ridiculed – didn’t involve young people, it was done in an advertising agency, had no sense of realism.”
Australia21 has applied those three principles in the development of a groundbreaking teaching resource, Smarter About Drugs: A conversation pack.
It’s been designed by young people, for young people, led by our youth advisory committee YoungA21, with the support and guidance of Australia21 and the Australian Lions Drug Awareness Foundation (ALDAF).
The conversation pack has been extensively researched, rigorously vetted, piloted at an early stage, and trialled in its final form, ahead of its release to schools and community groups next week.
Smarter About Drugs: A conversation pack is designed to:
facilitate critical thinking about drug and alcohol use among young Australians;
empower young people to take ownership of harm minimisation strategies; and
give young people a voice in policy development and decisions, which often have the greatest impact on their age group.
Watch this space for news of this week’s launch and live links to the resource!