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What progress has been made on policy reform since the release of Australia 21’s groundbreaking March 2017 report ‘Can Australia respond to drugs more effectively and safely?’ On the upside, there’s been a noticeable change in much of the national rhetoric around the issue of illicit drug use. On the downside, some politicians are clinging to outdated populist slogans that do nothing to help save lives.

The call for decriminalisation and regulation of substances for personal use was given bold support by the signatories to Australia21’s report, who included senior police, prison officers and judges. Along with former NSW Labor Premier Bob Carr and former Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett, those high profile law enforcers stood side-by-side with drug users to urge state and federal governments to prioritise harm minimisation strategies and substance abuse treatment, instead of continuing the failed ‘War On Drugs’. Their stand seems to have given others ‘permission’ to start seriously considering whether favouring health and education initiatives over a law and order approach will allow the nation a fighting chance at saving people from deaths and from criminalisation, which ruins lives and often leads to harder drug use.

But what concrete steps have been taken to bring about a positive change in outcomes, particularly among young people themselves? The answer is simple: not enough. The call for action has been drowned out by the dangerous babble of Donald Trump and the posturing of Kim Jong Un, by the same-sex marriage debate and now the dual citizenship chaos in Parliament House.

Instead, another ‘tough on crime’ pre-election campaign is being run, this time in South Australia — despite all the evidence that making drug use a political football does nothing to improve the problem, and often makes it worse.

Populist agendas do not make for effective health policy

In a headline-grabbing strategy, the SA Opposition Leader Steven Marshall has promised the random use of drug sniffer dogs in public schools, should he be elected Premier. He has also promised to quadruple the maximum fine for cannabis possession, to $2000.

The Opposition’s Police spokesman Stephan Knoll said the party had consulted widely within the education and law enforcement sectors about the sniffer dog policy.

“It is a tool that schools want to be able to use to stop addiction and drug-peddling in their schools,” he said.

That seemed to come as a surprise to SA Secondary Principals Association president Peter Mader, who told The Advertiser “I am unsure about how the sniffer dog strategy will improve this aspect of school life.” Mr Mader said principals continue to support the current policy of working with police directly if they suspect illegal drug use.

It’s time politicians learnt the lesson that every school child can easily understand when presented with the facts: prevention is far more healthy and effective than punishment, for both the individual and the community.

Sure, Steven Marshall says his Stop the Scourge in Schools campaign will also include “a pro-active approach to education about healthy living and substance abuse” along with extra policing —  but you have to be concerned about what the content of that will be, given the use of the discredited Nixon-style call for a “War On Drugs”, complete with salivating dog, emblazoned across the Opposition Leader’s website.

In South Australia, most alcohol and drug treatment is provided by non-government not for profit organisations. The South Australian Network of Drug and Alcohol Services represents the majority of those providers and it’s calling on politicians and parties to provide policies that recognise at least a minimum understanding of the issue.

In summary:

  1. Problematic drug and alcohol use is primarily a health issue. People affected by drug and alcohol issues require treatment for dependence and withdrawal, including appropriate aftercare. The major focus of a drug and alcohol policy should be evidence based, specialist alcohol and drug treatment.

  2. Addressing supply is important, but the criminal justice system should focus on those profiting from the harm caused to individuals, families and communities.  Criminal penalties for individuals who are experiencing drug and alcohol issues can result in significant, lifelong negative consequences, often much harsher than their behaviour warrants.

  3. Reducing demand requires effective prevention through evidence-based education about alcohol and drug harms targeted at relevant groups, as well as appropriate taxation of alcohol and tobacco, and tighter controls of prescription drugs that may cause dependence.

  4. The community needs early intervention strategies that break the cycle of harm, including sufficient treatment and support for affected people, and their families and communities. These interventions should be evidence based, culturally appropriate and targeted at groups most affected.

  5. Most importantly, all alcohol and drug policies should be developed in consultation with experts in the field of drug and alcohol interventions.  Populist agendas do not make for effective health policy.

Teaching school kids to be Smarter About Drugs

Australia21 has a better solution to the SA Opposition’s widely-panned sniffer dog proposal: spend the money giving children more effective education about drug safety, as we have started doing in South Australia in partnership with the Australian Lions Drug Awareness Foundation.

Australia21 and ALDAF were already designing an evidence-based teaching resource when Cowandilla Primary School asked for help to deliver a drug and alcohol education program to its Year 7 and 8 students. The school’s staff and parents were enthusiastic supporters of the pilot in 2016.

“Maths is important and literacy is important, but this may well be a life-saving skill,” said Cowandilla PS Principal Julie Hayes.

You can preview a short documentary showing the positive impacts of the pilot program here, or by clicking on the video below.

Australia21 and ALDAF continued developing a resource suitable for secondary students of all ages through to senior levels, and young adults beyond school. In 2017, the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (ACHPER) in South Australia assisted with mapping the expanded version to the Australian curriculum.

The result is Smarter About Drugs: A conversation pack, which has just been trialled among Year 11 students in Victoria and will be made available to schools across Australia next week. The Victorian trials have had an enthusiastic response from Year 11 and 12 Global Politics students.

‘At no time has there been a greater need for evidence-based advocacy and pursuit of compassionate, effective policy,’ said Brenda Hosking, ALDAF’s National Drug Education Consultant.

At the heart of the Smarter About Drugs strategy will be the nation’s most valuable resource: young Australians. We’re confident the conversation pack can become a powerful tool in their hands, empowering them to think critically about drug-taking, to own harm minimisation strategies and to speak up about policy development and decisions.

Smarter About Drugs: A conversation pack will do far more to change dangerous risk-taking behaviour among students than sending headline-grabbing sniffer dogs into schools ever could.

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