Get behind fair treatment – Bill Bush

Our remembrance ceremony just past is the most moving, most important, most profound event of our year. It sums up what Families and Friends is all about – putting an end to the deaths and suffering precipitated or aggravated by our counter-productive and stupid policy response to certain drugs.

This year 280 names were read out. That mere number still has power to astound. One first time attender told me she never realised that so many die (we could, of course, have added thousands more from around the country.)

This country is getting a lot of practice in apologising for misguided, harmful policies: the forgotten children dragged from their indigenous parents, allegedly orphaned children dispatched from post-war Britain across the world to endure abusive, unloving treatment in Australian orphanages, gays pursued as criminals for over 100 years, children traumatised for life by sexual abuse the existence of which was suppressed by trusted institutions like churches. Australian governments and institutions have a lot to seek forgiveness for. The day will come when governments will be forced to apologise for the tragic consequences caused by drug prohibition laws.

One of the most off putting reactions I am greeted with when a stranger learns of my involvement in drug law reform is sympathy for the family loss they assume I have suffered. Now I give thanks that I am not in that position but what drives me and what droves Marion and Brian, who in 1995 kicked off our group, is a sense of deep grievance – of profound injustice. True, our  annual remembrance ceremony has mourning and grief among its aims but it also serves as a rallying call to right a grave wrong without which all those deaths would most likely not have occurred.

The barrier that created the stigma and alienation, the attitude that begrudged providing less than half the treatment beds required, the fear of police intervention that interrupts treatment and precipitates vulnerable young human beings into the grinding maws of the criminal justice system was the fact that our unjust laws made all those thousands of people criminals. We know and honour their worth, we remember their passing but to the law of the land they were all criminals undeserving of our sympathy. There’s no fairness there.

This year Ann Finlay spoke about her young son Paul’s struggle to overcome a dependency precipitated by powerful painkillers he was prescribed after suffering severe burns. Paul’s experience represents the icy sharp ridge that drug users seek to climb in search of relief. Paul frantically applied to doctors for prescription medications. Others for exactly the same recognised medical condition of opiate dependency sought relief in an illicit opiate. Climbers who lose their footing plunge to their death from either side of that ridge but there is a difference: you fall on one side you are a good person who has suffered a misfortune. You fall on the other and it’s your own fault because you broke the law. But the difference between these different drug users is becoming more and more blurred. Patients who have become dependent on powerful pain killers have recourse to the illicit market when they are blocked from securing supplies through medical channels. This week the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare commented that:

More Australians have used Pain-killers/analgesics and pharmaceutical opioids for illicit or non-medical purposes in their lifetime than have used Heroin. While the percentage of Australians who have used Heroin in their lifetime has decreased over time, the percentage reporting illicit or non-medical use of Pain-killers/analgesics and pharmaceutical opioids in their lifetime has increased over time.

And analgesics like the particularly potent fentanyl is used to cut drugs bought illicitly:

Fentanyl is more potent than heroin and has a greater potential to be lethal, meaning many users die before they can receive acute care

Who is good, who is bad and who has the capacity to change the policy that makes such a cruel, wrong distinction?

The NSW/ACT Synod of the Uniting Church proclaimed in 2015 its support for the removal of criminal sanctions for the possession of small quantities of illicit drugs. It distinguished itself by becoming the first religious organisation in the world to do so. Subsequently Uniting, the welfare arm of the church, promoted this campaign under the slogan: #FairTreatment. “Fair” is the sting in the tail of that slogan. Any amount of treatment that can be disrupted by the criminal law coming down hard on a drug user is not “Fair”. Decriminalisation is not an optional extra.

So let’s get behind something like “really fair treatment”, “fair go for us all” or “it’s our turn now!”. Come on, use your imagination. Start tweeting and posting on your Facebook page because, as the Australia 21 report just released expresses it: “We all pay the price.” It’s time to revolt against prohibition that is tearing apart the social fabric of Australia. Enough!