HON COLIN TINCKNELL (South West) [1.06 pm]: I move —
That this house expresses its concerns over the failure of the McGowan government to combat drugs and crime in our community.
(Comments and speeches from various members)
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [2.15 pm]: I rise because I most certainly want to speak on this motion. Members are no doubt aware that I would very much like to speak on the complex issues that arise from the use of alcohol and other drugs. It is important to note that I am not going to be coming out with bouquets for this government or previous governments because I do not believe that any government, either state or federal or of any political persuasion, has yet cracked the very difficult nut of how to tackle the very complex and wicked issue of drug use within our community. I always welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues. We all know, and I say it all the time, that illicit drug use and the crime that arises from that cause an immense amount of suffering and pain within the community. We know that the current approach is simply not working. Our prisons are filled with drug users and people who have committed a range of offences as a result of drug use. We know that black markets for illicit drugs are thriving. In Western Australia, around 23 000 drug-related offences for either possession or dealing are recorded each year. I note that that number has declined slightly from the five-year average, but illicit drug use costs our country billions of dollars every year in lost productivity, health care and dealing with the consequences of crime.
Our approach to illicit drug use and crime more generally needs to start coming from a strong evidence-based perspective and not just rely on cheap slogans to win over some sort of populist position. We need to look at where the evidence takes us to what actually works. It is vital to look at what has been proven to reduce drug-related harm and crime. Just as important, it is essential that we also look at what has been tried and what has failed. It is precisely for this reason that this house set up what ended up being a more than yearlong committee inquiry to look into the approaches to reduce illicit drug use. One of the recommendations that came out of the methamphetamine action plan was that a committee of this sort be established for the exact purpose of looking at the regime of how we are tackling drugs. One of the witnesses who attended a public hearing for that inquiry was Mr Ron Alexander, the chair of the Methamphetamine Action Plan Taskforce. He indicated that it had always been the desire of that inquiry to have a cross-party committee look into how we treat the issue of illicit drug use because evidence from the meth inquiry had led the task force to realise that that issue needed to be looked at.
Once again, I appreciate the opportunity to raise the findings and the recommendations of the report “Help, Not Handcuffs: Evidence-Based Approaches to Reducing Harm from Illicit Drug Use”. I again remind members that this ended up being a consensus report that was comprehensive and evidence based. The committee found that a number of approaches used within Australia and also internationally had successfully reduced drug-related harm by shifting policy priorities from prohibition towards health prevention and harm reduction.
The committee found that by far the most effective approach involves defining and treating drug use as a health and a social issue rather than a criminal justice issue. As a result, one of the many comprehensive recommendations in this report is that the committee has called on the Western Australian government to do just that. It is really important to note that as part of the work of this committee, in response to the many submissions we received, it decided it was important to not simply look at those countries held up as being a great success on taking a health-based approach to drug use, but also those countries that have taken a really strong tough-on-crime approach to see how successful that approach has been. Sweden has been looked at comprehensively and it had been proffered as an example in some of the submissions. Sweden has taken a very punitive approach to the prohibition of illicit drugs. The committee went to Sweden and met with multiple people over many days, from members of Parliament to researchers to people in drug services. Pretty much across the board, people in Sweden said that its very strong tough-on-crime approach to drugs does not work and that they would not recommend it. In fact, quite a lot of people were bewildered that anyone would want to come to their country to see how it operates as an example. That became a very telling example of what not to do. That does not mean that Sweden does everything poorly, and there are some really important recommendations in the report that I recommend members look at. I have noticed that some elements seem to have been picked up by the McGowan government, but we will see. It is really important that members, rather than taking the utterly inaccurate view that the committee looked at only jurisdictions that have successfully implemented a health-based approach, actually read the report and recognise that the committee took a very comprehensive view of a number of jurisdictions and approaches, and as a result was able to make informed, evidence-based and unanimous recommendations.
Remember, there are three elements to addressing illicit drug use. It is about reducing supply, reducing demand and, importantly, harm reduction. Addressing supply is important and is often the element we focus on most when it comes to elections, but, unfortunately, on its own it has a very limited capacity to reduce drug use. Currently, over two-thirds of drug-related government spending goes towards law enforcement efforts to target drug supply. Despite this, we know that illicit drugs remain widespread and relatively cheap, and, unfortunately, very easy to obtain. We need to recognise that interrupting supply will always be particularly challenging in Western Australia, given our state’s size and geography. Although it is absolutely an important part of the strategy for how we deal with illicit drug use, it is clear that reducing supply cannot be the only strategy for reducing drug-related harm. I note the impact of COVID-19 border closures on meth supply. I understand that the cost of meth has increased significantly as supplies have reduced with the borders closed and travel restricted. This is very interesting and welcome news, but that will not last forever and there is now a risk that we will have an increase in home-produced illicit drugs.
There is, of course, the issue of making sure that we address demand as well. This is when we start to look at ensuring that we have early intervention and prevention programs. Addressing demand involves preventing the uptake and delaying the onset of drug use, reducing drug misuse and supporting people to recover. The committee found that there were significant gaps in work to address demand within Western Australia, including in the availability of drug treatment services. I think everyone would agree that people who need help for drug-related issues should be able to access help in a timely manner. It should not matter that a person lives in Perth or a regional or remote area, or that they are in our prison system. But, unfortunately, at the moment, it is not the case that a person who needs immediate assistance with illicit drug abuse issues can access the support that they need. People living outside the metropolitan area face increased risk factors for problematic drug and alcohol use, and greater challenges accessing drug and alcohol treatment services. The committee found that a person living in Bunbury might have to wait six weeks to even access a drug and alcohol counsellor, a person living in Albany does not have access to residential treatment services and there is a lack of specialist addiction physicians and psychiatrists in our hospitals and the public health system across the entire state. The financial and human cost of not having sufficient services is huge, and it is a false economy if we are not able to invest in these essential areas. Addressing this shortfall will be crucial if the government is going to adequately address drug-related harm.
The report’s recommendations also talk to the need to fund the “Western Australia Mental Health and Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015–25”. I have been talking about this for the three years that I have been in the fortieth Parliament. We have found that we are simply not keeping pace. I note that there is increasing agitation from community-managed services to have this addressed, and it is going to be more and not less of an issue as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.
The committee looked in quite a lot of detail at the issue of diversion. The committee found that diverting people whose offending is related to drug use away from the criminal justice system into health interventions has been shown to be an effective way to reduce the adverse health, social and economic harms associated with drug use. WA has some very important police and court diversion programs, including our very successful Drug Court, which has been going for a number of years, but these are not working as well as they could potentially. The committee made a range of recommendations around diversion strategies, including broadening the eligibility criteria for the Drug Court and expanding it to the regions. This is consistent with a Law Reform Commission report from over a decade ago. Successful diversion relies upon treatment services being available to divert people, too, of course. If these services are not available, we end up with less effective and much more expensive criminal justice responses, including prison.
I will say a little bit more about prisons. The committee talked about and looked at them specifically, and its members went to one of the prisons as well. A 2013 survey of prisoners who had recently arrived in a Western Australian prison found that 74 per cent of women and 77 per cent of men met the criteria for a clinically diagnosable alcohol and/or drug disorder. Despite imprisonment presenting what the Auditor General has recently characterised as an ideal opportunity for the state to intervene in the cycle of addiction and drug-related crime, the committee found that many prisoners in WA cannot access drug treatment opportunities while they are in our prisons. In April last year, only 10.7 per cent of prisoners discharged from a drug possession–related sentence had completed a drug treatment program. In 2017, approximately 65 per cent of prisoners could not access a drug treatment program due to being remanded in custody or serving a sentence of six months or less. Frankly, I think this is appalling, and the situation does not seem to be improving. I think the community would rightly expect that someone who has been sentenced for drug-related offences would be required, but also able, to access treatment services, whether that be in the prison or in the community, especially when the treatment has been court mandated. I think we should be pretty angry and the community is entitled to be outraged that this is far too often simply not the case. To provide one very recent example, I quote the opening paragraph of an article in The Kimberley Echo from last Thursday —
An East Kimberley man will spend nearly a year in prison for alcohol and driving offences after a government-run rehabilitation program was unable to provide his court-mandated treatment.
The program in question was Kununurra’s Indigenous diversion program. This government-run program is administered by the Kimberley Mental Health and Drug Service. I would love the minister to be able to tell me that this newspaper article is not factual, but I have heard similar stories to this far too many times. There is no community benefit in spending $300 a day to keep an adult in prison for drug-related offending when we have not resourced community programs to be able to meet their needs. As I have mentioned, there is also little expectation that this individual, if sent to prison, will get access to the treatment services there either. Although drug treatment programs in prisons such as Wandoo Rehabilitation Prison are promising initiatives—as I mentioned, we went there—we need adequate services across the whole prison estate. I was contacted last week by a family member of a young man who is in prison for drug-related offences. He is not going to be eligible for parole because he has not completed a drug and alcohol program. To be very clear, he wants to do the program—he is desperate to do the program—but it has simply not been made available. This is happening all the time. It is exacerbating pressure on our prison system, which we know is already overcrowded, and results in people being released without having any of their criminogenic needs addressed. Not only are specific drug and alcohol treatment needs not being addressed in prison, but also this is on top of their other health needs, including mental health care, not being met. People are being released into homelessness all the time, so do not be surprised that people still have drug and alcohol issues. I do not think it is at all surprising that more than four out of 10 adult prisoners are returning to prison or to community corrections. We are missing an opportunity to reduce long-term costs, address some of the drivers of criminal behaviour and help set people up so that they can be successful, law-abiding citizens upon release. It is clearly not an effective way to address either drugs or crime within our community.
The evidence from jurisdictions across the world indicates that the most effective way to reduce drug-related harm is through moving to a health-based approach. In order to be successful, there must be sufficient treatment services when and where people need to access them. The evidence to the committee was very loud and clear. If someone has reached crisis point and needs help, we need to help them then. We do not wait for two weeks. We do not wait for six weeks. We need to make sure that those services are there at the point that someone has reached rock bottom and wants help. Services are also needed to address the other social needs of drug users that contribute to their drug use, addressing issues of trauma, health, mental health and accommodation needs.
The committee report totals nearly 200 pages and covers a broad range of issues. We looked at the excellent WA Police Force mental health co-response program, and I absolutely support its expansion to drug users and regional areas. We call for more investment in harm reduction, as well as the development of a harm reduction strategy for Western Australia, which is something we do not have and recognise we absolutely need. I really hope the government will pick up on this work, and I hope that when it finally gives its response to this community report, it will be favourable to these recommendations. The committee has also called for better data collection in analysis and reporting, because we found that the true extent of drug-related offending in Western Australia is not even known or measured, and that the Department of Justice was not collecting information on Drug Court completion rates, recidivism rates or even costs. This is really basic, vital information, and was also a recommendation of a 2006 review of the court. This recommendation was made 14 years ago and it still has not happened.
Moving briefly away from the committee’s work, I also want to take the opportunity to talk about youth justice again and the government’s approach to crime and young people. We know that research demonstrates that the earlier a child becomes involved with the justice system, the more likely they will go on to offend again and end up in the adult justice system. This means that we need to have a stronger focus on prevention and early intervention in family support and child protection. Unsurprisingly, jurisdictions that base their youth justice system on a holistic approach that looks at making sure they are addressing children’s housing, health, mental health, education and family support needs have much better outcomes. According to data released last year, almost 82 per cent of young people who were released from youth detention in Western Australia ended up being returned to either sentence detention or adult custody within five years. I think this is a horrendous statistic. I have raised many concerns before about our overall approach to vulnerable young people in WA, a lack of investment in family support, support for children who have disengaged from schooling, and specialised mental health support, and I am still waiting for the all-of-government approach to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Specifically on youth justice, there has still been no reform of the Banksia Hill Detention Centre, which is absolutely not fit for purpose. This has been found to be the case over and over again. I remain disappointed that the Young Offenders Act has still not been prioritised as an area of reform, and we are still locking up children as young as 10 years old.
The subject of the motion is broad and there are many important aspects that I have not touched on. Of course, no-one can deny that dealing with drugs and crime are challenging issues, but what we do know is that a tough on crime, populist stance that is not backed by evidence is a futile waste of taxpayers’ money. I urge people to read the committee report and to read it properly.
(Comments and speeches from various members)
Question put and a division taken with the following result —
Question thus passed.