Select Committee into Alternate Approaches to Reducing Illicit Drug Use and its Effects on the Community — Final Report —
“Help, Not Handcuffs: Evidence-Based Approaches to Reducing Harm from Illicit Drug Use” — Motion
Resumed from 13 May on the following motion moved by Hon Alison Xamon —
That the report be noted.
Hon SAMANTHA ROWE: Hon Alison Xamon and I had a brief conversation behind the Chair, and she has very kindly agreed to allow me to make a contribution this afternoon. There will be plenty of time for other members of the committee who I note are in the chamber to make a contribution as well.
Comments and speeches by various members
Hon ALISON XAMON: Frankly, I would have been quite happy to have heard Hon Samantha Rowe continue to give her contribution. It was really quite helpful to hear her assessment of this committee. I thank her for the role she played in the time she was on that committee. Of course, members would be aware that I chaired the committee. The government has subsequently given its response to this report. I have already indicated in this place my disappointment with the government’s response to this consensus report across five wildly diverse political parties. It is very disappointing that the government did not take the opportunity to look at evidence-based reform when it had the chance.
I particularly want to draw members’ attention to the Western Australian Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies’ response to the government’s response, which says —
The Select Committee into Alternate Approaches to Reducing Illicit Drug Use and its Effects on the Community presented a unique opportunity to guide evidence-informed reforms that would reduce the harms associated with illicit drug use. It is important to note that the evidence consistently indicates that a health approach, as opposed to criminal sanction, is the most effective strategy. Such an approach is central to the Government’s intention to prevent and reduce incarceration, especially amongst Aboriginal people.
WANADA welcomed the release of the Select Committee’s Final Report: Help, Not Handcuffs: Evidence-Based Approaches to Reducing Harm from Illicit Drug Use. The Final Report needs to be acknowledged for recommending systems reform to address complexities surrounding illicit drug use.
The Final Report presented a rare consensus position, an impressive result considering inquiry members represented five parties from across the political spectrum. WANADA had hoped the Final Report would establish a shared foundation for evidenced reform and build on the only other cross-party supported alcohol and other drug initiative in Western Australia: the Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Services Plan 2015–2020.
WANADA believes the State Government’s response to the Final Report presents a missed opportunity to build upon the essential reform agenda that commenced with the Services Plan, and which has been further bolstered through the Methamphetamine Action Plan and associated Taskforce. The Final Report’s recommendations are founded on clear evidence that can lead to improved outcomes for all West Australians.
WANADA members have expressed disappointment with the State Government’s response to the Final Report, especially in relation to the recommendations below.
Drug use is defined and treated as a health and social issue rather than a criminal justice issue (recommendation 17)
A balanced range of initiatives with the intent to address the harms associated with drug use are required, however these all must be founded on the position that drug use is primarily a health and social issue. The failure to accept this position is in opposition to:
- established policy and research best-practice in both Australia and internationally;
- principles of justice reinvestment, and broad recognition of the overrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in the Western Australian justice system;
- trauma-informed practice;
- therapeutic jurisprudence; and
- the State Government’s Methamphetamine Action Plan Taskforce report, in which in the Chair states “Drug dependence is not a crime, it is a treatable health problem often underpinned by social disadvantage”.
The response states the Mental Health Commission is progressing the development of materials which promote positive stories and successful experiences with treatment and support, with the intention of reducing stigma. Such approaches can help, but it is important to avoid them inadvertently contributing to entrenched perceptions and reinforcing/individualising stigma (i.e. blaming individuals who do not achieve publicly approved outcomes). It is also critical to note that by failing to treat alcohol and other drug harms primarily as social and health issues, we defeat effective strategies to address stigma. We welcome the opportunity to contribute to an effective strategy to address stigma and discrimination, but we wish to bring to your attention that the current response, of noting this recommendation, is a critical lost opportunity.
Harm reduction and drug checking (recommendations 23; 24; 28; 30; 32; 33)
The need for rebalancing the system is frequently referred to in the Government’s response. The “balance” long recognised as needed in alcohol and other drug initiatives is across the three pillars of harm minimisation—demand, harm and supply reduction.
Harm reduction has been recognised as an equally essential pillar of national drug policies since 1985. The evidence in support of harm reduction is long standing and incontrovertible, and yet Western Australia currently meets approximately 3% of the demand for harm reduction services. WANADA welcomed recent funding increases for harm reduction, however we remain concerned that harm reduction service expansion needed to address harm across the community remains largely unrealised. WANADA suggests the need for a tailored harm reduction strategy, led by peers and the harm reduction specialist service sector.
Western Australia would benefit from more contextualised information on possible harm reduction initiatives. For example, numerous national and international reports demonstrate positive outcomes of drug checking. Rather than relying on a debate based on opinions, WANADA believes that we should be looking at innovations, assessing the evidence, and trialling new approaches. Analysis of drug content, and using this as an opportunity to inform the community and offer targeted brief interventions, should not be dismissed. Failing to undertake analysis and provide evidence-based advice is a lost opportunity to reduce harm. We cannot keep doing the same and expect a different result.
Addiction medicine specialists and workforce (recommendations 14, 15 & 34)
WANADA considers the current and projected shortfall in addiction medicine specialists to be a key workforce and systems support concern. In 2015 the Department of Health’s Specialist Workforce Capacity Program found that the shortfall of addiction medicine specialists would be a critical risk (i.e. supply meets less than 70% of demand) by 2021.
In relation to the draft Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Workforce Strategic Framework, WANADA provided significant input and critical recommendations following extensive sector and cross-sector consultation in 2017. The Framework remains in draft, despite the risks of professional workforce shortfalls through lack of forward planning. This presents critical barriers to the sector’s viability and sustainability, let alone the identified need for sector expansion. This workforce capacity barrier has been highlighted during COVID-19, where “surge responses” were shown to be dangerously limited to meet the specific and complex needs of alcohol and other drug cohorts.
Given the lead time needed to increase the number of required trained professionals—including addiction medicine specialists—WANADA is concerned that the response to these recommendations does not indicate the urgency of this critical reform.
I am going to run out of time before I have a chance to read the rest of this letter, but I have every intention of reading out the rest of it when I next seek the call and hopefully receive it. In the meantime, I seek leave to table this letter in the chamber.
Hon ALISON XAMON: I will be doing that.
The key thing that people need to take away is that the Western Australian Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies, which is the peak body that represents alcohol and other drug services in this state, is a relatively quiet and conservative peak body—they are not people who usually go out to rock the boat—and it has been very, very clear that it has seen that the government’s response to this report as “a lost opportunity”.
Consideration of report adjourned, pursuant to standing orders.
Committee interrupted, pursuant to standing orders.