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Tuesday, 24 June 2003
Page: 12417

Senator TCHEN (11:23 PM) —I rise tonight to bring to the attention of the Senate an important community initiative running this week. Drug Action Week 2003, running from 23 June to 28 June, was launched yesterday by the Hon. Trish Worth, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing. Drug Action Week is an initiative of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia, and I commend to the Senate and to all Australians the support of this and the council's other worthwhile initiatives.

Each day of Drug Action Week has a specific theme to reflect the complex array of issues involved in the use of alcohol and other drugs. On Monday the theme is prevention; on Tuesday the theme is treatment; on Wednesday the theme is mental health; on Thursday the theme is Indigenous Australians; on Friday the theme is amphetamine type substances; and on Saturday, perhaps the most important day of all, the theme is families and communities.

The Howard government is strongly committed to the prevention of substance abuse, and I applaud the Prime Minister's efforts to promote a society where our youth do not feel the need to use crutches like drugs. But we should not and need not lecture our youth on drug use—we should give them much credit for how, on the whole, they are going about building productive lives in an increasingly complex world. We also need to recognise that in this increasingly complex world, many of our youth, often through no fault of their own, fall into the trap of using alcohol and other drugs in the search for alleviating their pain and distress. The purpose of Drug Action Week is to raise awareness about the drug related harm that our young people may have to face and to promote the achievements of those who work to reduce such harms. It is also important to promote public debate about good harm reduction or prevention practice and strategies.

The potential harm of using drugs such as cannabis has been extensively researched and documented. The most at risk are adolescents, particularly those who begin using drugs early in their adolescence. These harms can range from physical to cognitive to psychological. Significantly, the use of alcohol and other drugs by young people is often associated with—that is to say possibly either as a consequence and as a causal antecedent—mental illness and disorders such as depression, anxiety and an increase in the risk of suicide attempts.

It is sometimes politically correct to ascribe a supposed `softness' to some drugs, for example, alcohol and cannabis. The dangers of excessive use of alcohol are legend and well known. To some, however, the dangers of supposed soft drugs such as cannabis are less obvious: for example, the Greens in New South Wales subscribe to this, which may not surprise us given the Greens' propensity to have ideas that come off the wall. However, it is regrettable and indeed shameful that a leading politician like the New South Wales Premier Bob Carr also subscribes to the idea that cannabis can be harmless. In fact, it is well documented that the potential damage that cannabis usage can inflict ranges from the development of cannabis dependent syndrome to the permanent deterioration of motor neural and mental performance, particularly for those who use cannabis heavily during their adolescence and young adulthood.

Another harm in the use of soft drugs such as cannabis is the potential for them to act as a gateway leading to the use of more lethal drugs such as heroin. This, the gateway effect, is the truly insidious nature of the supposedly soft drugs and can cause more damage over the long term. There are reliable indications that the number of substances used is more significant than the type of substance used in predicting suicide attempts by young people. This link between substance abuse and mental illness is one that needs close examination, particularly at a time when good mental health is critical, when our young people begin the transition from childhood, with dependence on guardians, families and friends, to the commencement of further education, a new career, long-term relationships or even families.

Of particular concern is the fact that people in rural and remote areas, particularly young men, are at higher risk of suicide than people living in urban areas. In our quest to reduce the suicide rate in Australia, we need to make a concerted effort to work to minimise all potential causes of mental illness and suicide, and reduction and prevention of drug abuse is a starting point. This is why Drug Action Week deserves and needs our attention. In supporting these and other valuable community initiatives, we assist a dedicated group of Australians in promoting the message that by preventing the misuse of drugs we can assist our youth to find a path towards a healthy and satisfying future. I commend the initiative of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council to the Senate.