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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement - 28/07/2015 - Crystal methamphetamine

PHILLIPS, Dr David Michael, National Director, FamilyVoice Australia

WYLD, Mr Damian Anthony, National Policy Officer, FamilyVoice Australia

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome. I invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then the committee will ask you a few questions.

Dr Phillips : Very good. I want to make six quick points. First of all, I am sure the committee is well aware of the harms caused by methamphetamine and associated drugs and I presume that is why the inquiry is being held. It certainly is damaging to the user and causes psychosis. The chemicals are neurotoxins; they damage the brain. Those in a psychotic state are known to be prone to violent outbursts and are a danger to other people and to society generally. It can cause permanent damage and lead to people being incapable of holding down a job, therefore becoming life-long welfare dependants. I am sure the committee is well aware of all these bad outcomes.

The second point is that in 2003 there was a federal inquiry into drugs which published its report called Road to recovery: report on the inquiry into substance abuse in Australian communities, and that report was highly critical of the current harm-minimisation strategy that has been in place since 1985. We likewise are critical of that policy. It has led to all sorts of things like needle exchange programs, drug maintenance on methadone programs and lax laws. It is clearly not working.

The third point is that another federal government inquiry was held in 2007 and published its report The winnable war on drugs: the impact of illicit drug use on families. That inquiry likewise was highly critical of the current regime. One of the witnesses who was a victim of the program, Ryan Hidden, told the media at that time

… I survived harm minimisation, because it literally threatened to destroy my life and my family’s life through the messages that it can implant into that structure and the way it threatened to tear us apart, literally. It was almost like that was its objective; it did not want me to escape my addiction, it wanted me to stay stuck there.

That is a very destructive approach. So two previous government inquiries have recommended a change of focus of dealing with the drug problem in Australia, departing from the harm-minimisation policy and adopting the goal of a drug-free society.

My fourth point is the Swedish model. Sweden had a very serious drug problem decades ago and abandoned its then harm-minimisation policy, adopting instead the goal of a drug-free society. There is no silver bullet. There is no quick solution, but they have tackled it at multiple levels with different strategies. They have tried to restrict supply, reduce demand, increase intervention and provide rehabilitation services. You need at least four separate strategies all heading in the one direction—harm prevention—to achieve a drug-free society.

The fifth point I want to make is that there is a solution, in the form of naltrexone, that Dr George O'Neil in WA has pioneered. The dopamine receptors in the brain can be blocked to remove the craving so the immediate craving problem can be overcome. Then the people who get into addictive situations do so because there is something else going on in their lives. When they are actually drug free, the question of the underlying issues can then be addressed. Dr O'Neil runs a fresh start program. The problem is that the TGA has not approved this for normal use; it is only available on special conditions. What are needed are proper trials properly conducted and funded by the federal government to allow this to become fully tested and potentially available as a widespread program.

My sixth and last point is that we ought to consider the underlying structures and problems in society that lead to the drug problem. There are studies around which show that it is in families that have been through divorce and family breakdown that children who experience those situations are often highly traumatised and have difficulty adjusting to normal life in many cases. Our conclusion for that is that at a wider societal level we need to be addressing the question of divorce and family breakdown. We need to do more as a society to honour marriage and to support families and encourage families, providing circumstances where families can thrive. That is a broader issue but we believe a fundamental issue that underlines many of the problems of drug addiction.

That is the end of my introductory remarks.

CHAIR: Mr Wyld, did you want to make any introductory remarks?

Mr Wyld : Not at this point, thank you.

CHAIR: Dr Phillips, just on your very first point: we heard some evidence yesterday that methamphetamines and ice do not have long-term effects on the brain. It can reverse itself after a period of time. That is contrary to what you are saying.

Dr Phillips : This is not my area of technical expertise, but we do believe there is long-term evidence. My understanding is that methamphetamines and ice both attack the dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain, and they can cause permanent damage to those receptors; that is permanent. That is our understanding.

CHAIR: Is that what you have seen with the people that you have been working with?

Dr Phillips : No. We do not actually deal with face-to-face drug rehabilitation programs. We rely on published evidence.

CHAIR: You also talked about criticism of harm minimisation strategies. When we read through our history of society in Australia there always appears to have been a demand for some type of intoxicating substance, whether we go back to the Rum Rebellion or to when there was a lot of misuse of alcohol in the early part of the century. In your study, you believe it is possible over a longer period to have a drug free society.

Dr Phillips : When I am talking about a drug free society, I am referring to drugs that do serious damage, such as in this context where we are talking about methamphetamines and ice—but there are other drugs, such as heroin, marijuana and cocaine. These are serious drugs that cause serious problems. The evidence from Sweden and other countries is that they have been very substantially successful. With drug usage of what I would call hard drugs, Australia has an incidence, which we put in our submission, which is many times that which occurs in other places. For example, on opiates, Australia has over 1,000 per cent more drug usage than Sweden; cocaine, 400 per cent increase; amphetamines, 262 per cent increase; and ecstasy, 3,000 per cent increase. If we had some other figure such as unemployment and we said that we were three times the unemployment rate of Sweden, wouldn't we think of doing something about it? I think Australia has an appalling track record based on the evidence in a direct comparison with Sweden, and surely we can do better than that.

CHAIR: Can you run through those numbers comparing Australia and Sweden again.

Dr Phillips : They are in our submission on page 4, section 5.

CHAIR: I will hand over to Senator Singh.

Senator SINGH: Thank you, Dr Phillips. You do highlight the Swedish model a lot in your submission, particularly the 2007 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report. In relation to that model, do you have any research on, or understanding of, how this model worked in the following eight years? Obviously, 2007 was a while ago. You do draw a lot on that Swedish model. Do you have any information on that?

Dr Phillips : I do not speak Swedish, so it is a bit hard; one relies on translations. If you would like more up-to-date information, I think I could take that as a question on notice, but I think the evidence from the period that Sweden has had this in place is clear, and it is not just Sweden but other countries.

Senator SINGH: What aspects of the Swedish model do you think would work successfully in Australia?

Mr Wyld : There are certainly some aspects of the Swedish model that we would do very well to implement immediately in Australia. There are some things, in fact, that Australia had been heading towards when, sadly, they were defunded. For example, from 2002 to 2005 we had a very well-funded and well-resourced national school drug education program. That was effectively dismantled in 2007, with schools largely left to rely on NGO support for those sorts of programs. Similarly, in 2006-07 the federal government Department of Health and Ageing had a fairly confronting but quite effective media and community campaign designed for TV. Households received booklets about the harms of illicit drugs. There was a real effort, I think, to take it beyond simply education at student and child level and to try to engage parents, because they are a large part of the solution. These sorts of programs are being undertaken in Sweden, in conjunction with government support and police support. It is a fairly comprehensive program, the likes of which we have not seen properly implemented in Australia previously but which we really need now.

Dr Phillips : I would like to add one other thing. I mentioned in my opening remarks the pioneering work being done by Dr George O'Neill in Perth with his naltrexone implants. That has proved to be a highly successful program for intervention and rehabilitation. I was in Perth some time back and I met some of the people who are in his clinic. I met two people who had come in the previous day with a daily heroin addiction program, and they were drug free when I met them. In 24 hours they had been detoxed, and with naltrexone implants the craving had been removed. It is a very effective program. They were then going into a safe house where they could address the social and other problems that had led them into this life of dependency on drugs. If you are going to Perth at a future hearing, I hope you will hear from Dr George O'Neill. We would recommend government endorsement and funding of further work of his program.

Senator SINGH: Is the naltrexone implants program part of the Swedish model?

Dr Phillips : I am not sure whether naltrexone is being used in Sweden, but it is certainly being used in Perth.

Senator SINGH: Can I just get back to my question regarding the Swedish model, because this is a fairly major part of your submission to this inquiry. In fact, there is a recommendation:

… that the government investigate the detailed operation of the successful Swedish drug policy and adopt it as a model for combating the usage of ice in Australia.

I understand from Mr Wyld that you have highlighted the drug education program which is part of the Swedish model and is something that has dropped off from government funding in Australia. Can you tell the committee a bit more about the Swedish model and the other benefits that could be gained in Australia from us adopting the Swedish model, other than drug education.

Mr Wyld : Yes, certainly. From a police perspective, I can give you the example of the Stockholm County Police. In conjunction with the Swedish social services, they operate quite effectively among young people in what you would probably call the youth scene—events and so on where drugs are likely to be taken. Early intervention is crucial in turning people away from drug use, and there are special centres where young people can be taken for questioning and testing in a slightly more friendly environment than if they were taken straight to the police station. From that very early first intervention, they are introduced to staff from social services and health care, and they are offered treatment from that point. Again, that is another plank within the Swedish model. I think my colleague Dr Phillips outlined earlier that it is not a 'one size fits all' approach. Even in Sweden, there are three or four components to this program, and that is just another example.

Senator SINGH: Doctor Phillips, do you have anything to add about the Swedish model?

Dr Phillips : Just to reemphasise what I said in my opening remarks that it addresses supply. It has tough penalties for any drug traffickers and they are rigorously enforced, so it cracks down on supply very hard. In terms of demand, my colleague Mr Wyld has pointed out the education programs that are used to try to reduce demand. It has strong intervention programs for people who are drug users—drug dependent. They address that with strong intervention programs and put people into rehabilitation programs. They take active engagement on three or four different fronts.

Senator SINGH: Your position, as FamilyVoice Australia, against harm minimisation: is that your position against all drugs or are you just highlighting that for the benefit of this inquiry in relation to it not being of benefit with ice addicts?

Dr Phillips : We criticise harm minimisation as a policy for all serious, hard, addictive drugs, which include opiates, cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and ecstasy. For all of those we would recommend that we should be aiming at prevention of use rather than maintaining people in their dependency.

Senator SINGH: What do you base that on?

Dr Phillips : I can point again to the Swedish model table that I have here, where the usage of opiates is over 10 times as great in Australia compared with Sweden, the use of cocaine is four times as great, the use of cannabis is four times as great, the use of amphetamines is 7½ times as great and the use of ecstasy is 30 times as great. So I just re-emphasise what I have said before: the product that we have in Australia and that we have had for the last 30 years has led to Australia having an appalling record on drug dependency, and that impacts us at every level of society. My understanding is that a large proportion of people in jail today are there because of drug related problems. We just heard on the news this morning that South Australian jails are overcrowded. There is not enough space to house the existing prisoners and there are projections for an increased number of criminals. We have problems with our prisons overcrowding because of drugs, we have problems with our psychiatric hospitals and my understanding is that a large proportion of psychiatric patients have comorbidities with drug related problems as well as psychiatric problems. There are huge problems in Australia that are a direct result of Australia's soft policy on drugs, which only maintains dependency.

Senator SINGH: Perhaps I could ask you to provide the committee with any more detail you can on the Swedish model. I think for the benefit of time I will have to move on, but I am interested in any more detail that you can provide in you support for the Swedish model, if that is able to be translated.

Dr Phillips : We will address that and see what we can find.

Senator SINGH: Thank you.

Senator EDWARDS: Good morning, fellows. It is good to have you with us here on this journey, as we come together as a committee from all over Australia, trying to improve the outcomes of not only South Australians but all Australians. I have had a look at your submission and obviously the work that you do is important work. Obviously there are many manners in which you can interpret the way in which work should be carried out. Your position on harm minimisation is very clear and you are looking to try and eliminate the risk. I am interested to know how you actually achieve that in the community, because, if you are going to have zero tolerance on harm minimisation, how are we going to stop this issue? How are we going to deliver that in the community? I would like not to have any kinds of drug issues at all. I would like to not tolerate them in any way. I have some empathy with your view, but the overwhelming evidence says—and I think the chair referred to it—that we as a species have a propensity for finding something that will give us immediate pleasure, and people seek to make a profit out of letting people achieve that. We have had that going through the aeons. However, what are we going to do? We heard contradictory evidence this morning and yesterday—people saying that we should intervene at an early level, in schools, and people saying that we should actually stay out of schools and try and inform the public as to the dangers of this type of choice in their life. How do we do it under your model?

Dr Phillips : I have a couple of comments. In a broader context, society has always had crime. We have always had murders. We have always had theft. We have always had assault. We have always had all sorts of things that are undesirable. But society takes a view that these things need to be policed and things that are not in the community interest minimised. One will never entirely eliminate them, but there is a need for adequately strong laws and police enforcement. That needs to be applied in the drug laws just as much as in burglary or assault or any other area. How do we do it in the community? One way is to address the legal side and make sure we have strong enough and good enough policing.

Senator EDWARDS: But hasn't the horse bolted by then? Once you have got an interaction with law enforcement, that means that there has been a delinquency in our social code, or the levels of acceptability of our social code, and you are on a slippery slope. How do we get the people in the community to not have any interaction either with the drugs or, subsequently, the police?

Mr Wyld : I think you have hit the nail on the head. There is no magic bullet. As with Sweden, so for Australia. The way forward is really a multipronged approach. If we are simply waiting for police intervention and trying to break up supply, it is almost too late. We do need to work on eliminating demand as well, and that comes at a number of levels: as my colleague Dr Phillips has talked about, really trying to do what we can at a broader level to address familial breakdown and the conditions which often lead people down this path, and educative efforts, which can be undertaken at a range of levels, not just in schools, because obviously that is a matter that needs consideration. School intervention is something that always has to be handled with care, at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner, but educative programs can take place at community level, engaging parents, which is obviously key to trying to keep children off drugs. Even in terms of law enforcement, there is so much more than simply enforcing the law and breaking up drug supply. As we have commented from the Swedish example—and I am sorry to revert to that again, but it is a good one—police programs can dovetail with other programs, like early intervention with young people and trying to steer them down a better path. There are some good NGOs who have worked with law enforcement, not just in Sweden but also in the US and elsewhere. There are examples we can provide of where those NGOs have worked well with parents and young people to try and turn them onto a different path early, which is vital.

Dr Phillips : There are some other general observations that I would make. One very quick point is that I recall reading some years ago of an experiment where a monkey was placed in a situation where it had a button it could press. There was an electrode planted in the pleasure centre of the monkey's brain, and every time the monkey pressed the button it would get a stimulus to the pleasure centre in the brain. But it was also provided with the alternative of food to eat. But, in fact, the monkey just kept pressing the button to stimulate the pleasure centre, and it died of starvation. There is a sense that once a person becomes addicted they lose all sense of what is in their own interests. That is a side element, but it does indicate the insidious nature of addictive drugs.

Dealing with something at a community level, one of the things that has disappointed us, for example, is that in recent discussions on family tax policy we have suggested that the family be recognised as an economic unit, that taxation policy be adjusted to allow families to be taxed as an economic unit and that those people who want to have one parent staying at home with the children be allowed to do so, without being penalised in paying tax. None of these things has been adopted. In fact, recent government policy has been heading in the other direction where family benefits that have been paid in recent years are being reduced in order to encourage more women into the workforce, which means that no parent is around to supervise children after school.

Those sorts of policies are counterproductive to the health of good, functioning families. It is clear that the gold standard for raising young Australian citizens is an intact, biological family where children grow up with their married, biological parents. We are undermining that with surrogacy laws as well, and the push for same-sex marriage would undermine marriage even further. There are a number of marriage and family-related policies, which are counterproductive to society in general, and one of their implications is for things like drug dependency.

CHAIR: Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your submissions. I think there were one or two questions on notice. Could you provide us with some detail on that as soon as you possibly can.

Dr Phillips : Thank you for the opportunity.