AIVL and Harm Reduction Victoria (HRV) welcome the release of the Victorian Parliamentary Law Reform, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee Inquiry into the Supply and Use of Methamphetamines (ice), in Victoria. The report comes at a time of unprecedented fear in the community and increasing media frenzy about the ice “epidemic” gripping Victoria.
With elections only a few months away in Victoria, it is perhaps not surprising that the issue of ice has become so politically charged. A virtual ‘law and order auction’ is unfolding with the Labor Party promising to be ‘tougher on drugs’ than the current Victorian Government and proposing new ice related laws with maximum sentences of 20-25 years’ imprisonment. Meanwhile the Napthine Coalition Government has announced plans to deploy additional passive alert detection (PAD) dogs to assist in the search and apprehension of ice users and dealers and increased capacity for drug/drive testing.
Drug user organisations such as Harm Reduction Victoria (HRV) and the Australian Illicit and Injecting Drug Users League (AIVL) have been monitoring these trends for some time with increasing concern. The Victorian Parliamentary Report, then, comes as a breath of fresh air, with the majority of the 54 recommendations in the report supported by HRV and AIVL.
“The report’s recommendations are for the most part promising” said Ms Niki Parry, AIVL President. “We commend the committee for their comments about the unhelpful nature of media hype and references to an ice “pandemic”. The Committee has listened to a wide range of stakeholders including people who use drugs which is evident in their observations that methamphetamine use cuts across all walks of life with only a small percentage of ice use becoming problematic. Nevertheless there is still a concerning reliance on law enforcement approaches and increased penalties in the report” said Ms Parry.
AIVL and HRV are genuinely concerned about the adverse impact of inaccurate and irresponsible reporting. “We see the way it scares families and communities and stigmatises drug users further. Reports depicting all amphetamine type substances (ATS) as ‘ice’ and misrepresentation of the level of problematic ice use and its impact on communities will only increase the potential for harm as drug users are pushed underground and away from vital information and services” said Ms Parry.
“Rather than alarming the community about an ‘out-of-control ice epidemic, the report rightly seeks to ensure that our response to methamphetamine use in Victoria is based on the best available evidence, meaningful community consultation and proven harm reduction and drug treatment approaches” added Ms Parry.
AIVL and HRV acknowledge the need to support people engaged in problematic ice use which is negatively impacting their lives and the lives of those around them. “The recommendations in this report go a long way to addressing this need” said Ms Parry. “AIVL and HRV are committed to working with other relevant community organisations to ensure that people who use ice and other ATS have timely access to information, support and services to meet their specific needs and circumstances” she said.
“As the drug user organisation for Victoria, Harm Reduction Victoria welcomes the report’s recommendations that innovative and evidence-based harm reduction and treatment options for methamphetamine users be made available” said Ms Jenny Kelsall, Executive Officer, Harm Reduction Victoria. “While we applaud the report’s call for improved access to drug treatment, we would like to have seen a greater emphasis on increasing the availability of substitution therapy for methamphetamine users” Ms Kelsall said.
Ms Parry pointed to two such programs for methamphetamine users that have been available in NSW for a number of years. “These programs have succeeded in helping stimulant users take control of their own health outcomes. We would like to see similar programs made available throughout the country, particularly for Aboriginal and young people in marginalised communities and in rural and regional areas” stated Ms Parry.
“However we know that many people who use methamphetamines do not experience problems and they may never need to access drug treatment services” added Ms Kelsall. “Nevertheless, access to accurate information and harm reduction services including peer education is still essential for this group” she concluded.
Unfortunately the Government’s emphasis on law enforcement approaches, particularly in Victoria, comes at the expense of accurate and honest information and effective harm reduction approaches. The continued emphasis on law enforcement and ramping up of legal penalties will further drive methamphetamine users away from essential services, rather than decreasing the use of these drugs.
“We are already seeing dramatic increases in arrest rates for “ice” related offences in Victoria” said Ms Kelsall. “These increases are not driven by an escalation in the use of ice as the police and media would have us believe; rather, they are directly related to the channelling of police resources into ice and the establishment of “Ice Taskforces” particularly in regional areas of Victoria. It is in effect a self-fulfilling prophecy – significantly increase the numbers of police specifically focused on ice and of course, arrest rates will also increase. It doesn’t mean there is a major increase in the levels of ice use but simply that many more people are being charged with minor possession offences. Once again we fear that it is the most marginalized and visible drug users who will bear the brunt of this sort of ineffective response” she said.
Following hot on the heels of the Victorian Parliamentary Committee’s Report, the Victorian Coalition Government has launched a new Ice Campaign this week comprising TV, radio, newspaper and online ads with the tagline “What are you doing on ice?” The Minister for Mental Health Mary Wooldridge said that the campaign highlights ice as an addictive and dangerous drug that can destroy lives.
“Perspective is essential’ said Ms Kelsall. “We know that ice is associated with a range of potential risks and it is important that people know there is help available and where to go if they run into problems with ice. At Harm Reduction Victoria, we think peer education programs are an essential way to educate people about how to look after themselves so that they never get to the pointy end of the scale of potential harms” added Ms Kelsall.
“We also need to remind ourselves that ice is nothing new – it is simply a more potent form of ATS and we have lived with ATS for a long time and we have effective, evidence-informed strategies available in response. We really must ask whether the current approach is the best we can do when it comes to responding to methamphetamine use in the community” concluded Ms Kelsall.