FFDLR Newsletter March 2021

Read the newsletter below or click here for the properly-formatted version.


Next FFDLR meeting via Zoom:
Thursday 25 March, 7:30 pm
A lot is happening in the DLR space that needs our support and input. It would be great if you could join in this Zoom meeting to discuss the best way FFDLR can contribute.
An invitation to the meeting will be sent separately.

It was unfortunate that the BBQ organised for 28 January had to be cancelled due to inclement weather.
We are delighted to hear that John Ley is out of the High Dependency Unit and now in a single room in the Calvary Bruce Private Hospital. Our sincere wishes for a  return to normal life in familiar surroundings as soon as possible. You are a true wonder John.
VALE Jude Byrne Members of FFDLR were included in the large attendance at the moving tribute to Jude Byrne on Tuesday 16 March. Jude has been a champion for harm reduction policies for decades, especially among the User Groups. We heard what a generous and invaluable support she was to women who otherwise felt alienated because of their circumstances. Jude was also active on the international scene speaking at many overseas conferences. A kind, loving person who stood up for justice and human rights. She will be greatly missed. Our sincere condolences to her family.
 International Family Drug Support Day – 24 February 2021 

Initiated by Tony Trimingham in 2016 Family Drug Support has organised the International Family Drug Support Day on 24th February each year. It was established to draw attention to the importance of families affected by alcohol and/or drugs, including the benefits of supporting families. When families are given education, awareness and tips on coping and keeping safe, the outcome for everyone is improved.

This year Marion McConnell was among the speakers which also included Jennie Ross King, Senator Mehreen Faruqi, representing the Greens in the NSW Parliament and Tanya Plibersek, a Labor member for Sydney in the NSW Parliament.

Marion’s talk is produced below and also available at ffdlr.org.au.

Sixth International Family Drug Support Day – Wednesday 24 February, 2021 Parliament House – Canberra
Marion McConnell
Thank you Tony and Family Drug Support for inviting me to speak at this sixth International Family Drug Support Day. This year the focus is on “Family connection – Not Tough Love”

This emphasis reminded me of thoughts I had following my son’s death to a heroin overdose in 1992.  I began then to realise how difficult it must have been for him to speak to his family about his drug use. I believe that the fear and propaganda which has been instilled in society under prohibition has made it extremely difficult to communicate effectively about drugs that have been deemed illegal. Certainly, in my own case, I believe that my son would have found it extremely tough to talk to me on these issues because he would have perceived me as a person who was law abiding, who had high standards of ‘morality’ and was naïve to the world of drug taking. Because he probably saw me as believing all the propaganda and stereotyping of the drug user which was endemic in the media and in our society, who could blame him for not coming to me with his problems.

But his perceptions were wrong. When we did find out, he realised our love for him was stronger than any ill-conceived drug laws but unfortunately the laws won out and he died 2 weeks later.  We had little time to seek help or support.

Parenting is the most important and challenging job any of us can have; yet it receives little support or recognition in our society. Nowhere is this more evident than in families experiencing drug issues.
One small step governments can take to reduce this shame and stigma that stops many seeking help is to remove the criminal sanctions for drug use.

Decriminalisation does not increase drug use. It increases the understanding of drug use. Increased understanding reduces stigma and allows people who have a problem to ask for support and to seek treatment without fear. And it will help to expose the injustice of a system that treats our young people as criminals while a multi billion dollar drug industry, flourishes.

Over the last quarter of a century the organisation, to which I am a founding member, Families and Friends for Drug law Reform, has been encouraged by a few  members of parliament who have endeavoured to raise awareness on the failure of our drug laws but media backlash and ‘raising the white flag’ fear campaigns have dampened their progress.

But are the times changing here in Australia? At least they seem to be in the ACT. On 25 September 2019, the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to legalise the possession, use and cultivation of small amounts of cannabis. Michael Pettersson, a Labor backbencher deserves our grateful thanks for his commonsense in bringing this bill to the ACT Assembly. Preliminary data shows that cannabis use has not increased and people needing treatment are able to get it more openly.

And recently Michael released the draft consultation of his Drugs of Dependence Amendment Bill which seeks to remove criminal sanctions for those living in the capital territory and found to be in possession of an amount of any illegal drug deemed for personal use.

There is a small proposal before the NSW cabinet for police to issue warning notices rather than charge for possession of small quantities of drugs. This proposal was in response to the recommendations of Dan Howard, commissioner for the NSW Govt’s Inquiry into the drug Ice. After reading the submissions and listening to evidence Commissioner Howard handed down his findings declaring that there was strong and compelling evidence to support pill testing and also recommended the decriminalization of drug possession. This was supported by researchers, parent and user organisations and drug services including “Uniting”, the welfare arm of the Uniting Church.
ALAS it has been met with similar hysteria as was seen in the 1990s.

The front page headline in the Daily telegraph read “YOU BUNCH OF DOPES” and the more than disappointing response from the former Labor Premier – who said – quote “I am not yet convinced that what I see is the right way forward”. I would strongly urge the cabinet to slow down and listen to some experts.”. (end quote) Who did she think Commissioner Howard had been listening to during the months of the government’s own special commission into drug use? 

These negative responses to legislation that look to treating drug use as a health and social issue are now seen as lacking credibility.

Governments are realizing the need for change – a change that will not only be better for the drug users and society but the families who bear the greatest burden.
A change that will help keep families connected.
DOING MORE HARM THAN GOOD –The need for a health-focused legal response to drug use
Report by the Australian Lawyers Alliance released this month.
President of FFDLR recommends this report and it can be found at https://www.lawyersalliance.com.au/documents/item/2064#page29
Sydney’s Supervised Injecting Centre reaches its 20th year in 2021. The former and founding medical director, Dr Ingrid van Beek, reports that 1.2 million drug injecting episodes have occurred at the centre without a single fatality. This first supervised injecting facility in the English-speaking world began when the Uniting Church stepped in after the Vatican stopped the Sisters of Charity from operating the centre under the agreement of the Carr Labor government. Dr van Beek has welcomed continuing support from NSW Premier Berejiklian, 70 per cent of local businesses and 78 per cent of local residents. She said a ‘Kings Cross Liquor Accord’ request to remove the Centre ignored the ‘shocking’ alcohol-driven scenario that brought Kings Cross into disrepute. Ingrid van Beek: ‘Worry about Alcohol, not injecting Rooms’
– Sun-Herald February 14, 2021

 Michael Pettersson’s Cannabis Legalisation Bill 

ABC News Analysis on 31 January 2021 reported that the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to legalise the possession, use and cultivation of small amounts of cannabis in 2019.Under laws that came into effect from January 31, 2020, adults in the ACT are able to grow two cannabis plants eachThe laws allow possession of up to 50 grams per person and a maximum of four plants per household.The laws say the plants cannot be grown in public or be accessible to childrenThey conflict with Commonwealth law, which does not allow personal cannabis useCannabis remains a prohibited substance under Commonwealth law, and police officers in the ACT will retain the power to arrest and charge anyone with cannabis under those laws.

It will also be possible for the Commonwealth to overrule the ACT, and seek to have the laws struck out as inconsistent with its own legislation.

One year on, cannabis users and stakeholders alike say that, while overall the impacts have been subtle, the change has been for the better.

“Overall, we found cannabis use hasn’t changed and, in some ways, that’s the big story, because there were really dire predictions at the outset,” Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT chief executive Devin Bowles said.

While possession and cultivation became legal, buying the seeds and supplying cannabis or cannabis plants to anyone remained illegal.

The fears that the legal conflict between the territory and the Commonwealth could result in ACT Policing ignoring the local laws and instead charging users under federal law so far have been unfounded.

ACT Policing figures show the number of Simple Cannabis Offence Notices issued in 2020 dropped by almost 90 per cent — down from 56 to 5.

Interstate residents and ACT under-18 residents can still be charged.

Police figures also show there have been no standalone small amount cannabis possession offences recorded since the new legislation came into effect.

Drug driving offences remained steady.

Detective Acting Superintendent Callum Hughes said ACT Policing had no significant issues in implementing the new cannabis laws.

“There remains the tension between Commonwealth drug possession laws and the ACT’s cannabis laws, however, this has not stopped the ACT law being implemented,” he said.

“Drug use and drug possession continues to be associated with other crime types such as drug driving, assault, burglary and possession of stolen property etcetera.”

Another serious concern about the laws centred on the physical and mental health effects of recreational cannabis use.

ACT Health launched a public health campaign about the potential impacts of cannabis use — which include reduced brain function, memory loss, and an increased risk of psychoses, or even developing schizophrenia.

But ACT Health data shows there has been no increase in hospital presentations since the laws passed.

The annual Ecstasy and Related Drugs Reporting System report for the ACT found cannabis usage rates remained mostly steady.

“Because cannabis usage rates were not affected by legalisation, the flow-on effects through mental health haven’t happened and what’s more, people who need treatment are able to get it more openly,” Dr Bowles said.

“That applies to treatment for their cannabis use, but also for associated mental health issues, so we see it as a positive for mental health.”

The architect of the legislation, Labor MLA Michael Pettersson, has been pleased with the results so far.

But he said the laws were not the end of the road for drug reform, but rather a step towards treating drug use as a public health problem, rather than a criminal one.

“For the most part, I think things are pretty similar to what they were before, but I think we’re now heading in the right direction,” he said.

“Treating drug use as a crime hasn’t stopped drug use, treating drug use as a public health problem is the best way we can go about reducing drug use in our society.”

 – Adapted by Tess McDonald from various ABC news reports.
On February 1 the Therapeutic Goods Administration allowed over-the counter sale of cannabis oil. Up to 100mg per day of the oil, shown by clinical research to reduce anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder and pain, will not be for sale in pharmacies until the actual products are approved for sale by governments. There have also been positive reports for multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and for palliative care. The World Health Organisation reported that the oil didn’t lead to drug use or dependence. Opposition to the sale has come from the Australian Medical Association. Fresh Leaf Australia estimated that sales would exceed $200 million a year.
– Dr Ben Jansen, Cannabis Doctors Australia; Pharmacy Guild; Julie Power, Sun Herald; National Prescriber Service.          

 Inquiry and review into alcohol, tobacco and other drug harm reduction policy and programs provided in the ACT and an evaluation of future options 

It will be of interest to our FFDLR members that following the release of Michael Pettersson’s Drugs of Dependence Amendment Bill the Government has scheduled an Inquiry and review into alcohol, tobacco and other drug harm reduction policy and programs provided in the ACT and an evaluation of future options.

Members are encouraged to make a submission to this inquiry by the 7th of May 2021.  The terms of reference can be found at https://www.parliament.act.gov.au.
Bill Bush has written further on this issue in the following article.

ACT Committees looking into drug law reform generally and the Pettersson decriminalisation bill
Beyond doubt, the ACT is leading the nation in promoting better drug laws. Last year the Legislative Assembly legalised small quantities of cannabis in the hands of users. Just on the eve of last Christmas Michael Pettersson, the ALP member who initiated the cannabis legislation submitted a further private member’s bill that would decriminalise the use and possession of harder drugs like heroin and crystal meths in the hands of users. It proposes to do this by opening up the possibility of police issuing the equivalent of an on the spot fine to any person caught with small quantities in their possession. This is the same procedure as had existed for many years in the ACT for those caught with cannabis.
While there are many limitations on both the cannabis legalisation and the new decriminalisation Bill, we regard both steps as being of very significant symbolic importance in moving away from a prohibition mindset underpinned by the criminal law. The decriminalisation Bill builds on the motion supported by the Liberal Opposition when adopted by the Legislative Assembly in August last year for the Assembly  to “investigate the feasibility of a simple offence notice for other drugs of dependence to ascertain the legal, social and health impacts” and a subsequent petition submitted by Opposition Member, Elizabeth Kikkert, calling for a big expansion of drug treatment services here in the ACT. The Assembly has referred the decriminalisation Bill to a Select committee to report in October. The Standing Committee on Health and Community Wellbeing is also considering the Kikkert petition plus a health focused approach to drug policy. It is chaired by The Greens’ Johnathan Davis. Its terms of reference encompass:
b) The health and other social impacts of current policy, legislative, and criminal justice approaches to alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use in the ACT.
c) The adequacy and implementation of the ACT Government’s current funding commitments to support drug treatment and other harm reduction services, including funding for community-based and community-controlled organisations.
d) The availability and access to best practice drug education to enable and support prevention, early intervention, and community safety.
e) The benefits and challenges of establishing a clinically supervised drug consumption site in the ACT.
f) The issues and policy challenges (if any) for the ACT arising from the Australian Government’s alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use policy frameworks and commonwealth legislation.
g) Best practice policy approaches and responses being undertaken in other jurisdictions, including internationally, to reduce alcohol, tobacco, and other drug harm.
h) Other opportunities for the ACT to explore innovative responses to reducing harm.
i) The impact and proposed evaluation of the ACT Drug Strategy Action Plan 2018- 2021.
j) Any other related matters
 Submissions on this reference are due by 7 May.
Please forward  ideas and reference to material relevant to the submission. 
Bill Bush
Working towards drug law reform through reform of the mental health system
At the moment a lot is happening in the mental health space of which advantage can be taken to promote better drug policy. A most insightful and useful report is the monumental 2500 page one by the Productivity Commission. It identified two key factors behind the crisis in mental health across the country namely:
•   stigma; and
•   “persistent socioeconomic disadvantage, loneliness, and trauma” as other “major barriers to social participation” that “are strongly associated with mental ill-health.”
It also acknowledged the high prevalence of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.  “Many people with mental illness and comorbid physical health problems or substance use disorders do not receive integrated care, leading to poor outcomes, including premature death. Action is needed to improve the care provided to people with comorbidities.”
To address these problems the Commission declared that:
Firstly “Governments should continue to progress integrating mental health and substance use policy, planning and commissioning of services. AOD services should also be included in the remit of the Regional Commissioning Authorities [that the Commission recommended to transform the organisation of Mental health services across the country]” (Action 23.4) and
Secondly, that social support services should be integrated in addressing mental health problems (recommendation 14).
Thus, while we were disappointed that the Productivity Commission did not grasp the nettle by calling for the removal of reliance on the criminal law to underpin drug policy, it did lay out concepts and describe a way forward, which, if governments adopt them, will inevitably produce the results for which Families and Friends has been striving since it was established in 1995.
Our hope in the Victorian Royal Commission into mental health disappointed us by merely focusing upon the integration of treatment services for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Its recommendation 35 describes its approach in this way:
Improving outcomes for people living with mental illness and substance use or addiction
Recommendation component
1. By the end of 2022, in addition to ensuring there is at least one highest-level emergency department suitable for mental health and alcohol and other drug treatment in every region (refer to recommendations 3(3) and 8(3)(c)), ensure that all mental health and wellbeing services, across all age-based systems, including crisis services, community-based services and bed-based services:
a. provide integrated treatment, care and support to people living with mental illness and substance use or addiction; and
b. do not exclude consumers living with substance use or addiction from accessing treatment, care and support.
For almost 3 decades, recourse to “integrated treatment” as the panacea to the wicked problem of complex co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders has been a feature of national mental health and drug strategies. We have long said this approach serves to delegate the problem of responding to drug use to clinicians, thus absolving governments from facing up to the extent that policies that they set contribute to the problem. Moreover, clinicians are placed in an impossible position in seeking to balance their clinical obligation to provide person centred care with the characterisation of people who use drugs as antisocial outcasts who must be forced to mend their ways.
We like to think that the effort that we (and I particularly acknowledge the courage and help of Jan Lee) put into our representations to the Productivity Commission goes some way to explaining the extent it went to in specifically calling for the integration of mental health and drug policies – not as far as New Zealand but certainly an advance on what has gone before in Australia.
A third big mental health initiative of relevance to the reform of drug policy is the work of the National Mental Health Commission towards the development for the Commonwealth Government of a Vision 2030 which it describes as a Blueprint for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.
Families and Friends had input into this process initially in 2019 when I attended a Town Hall workshop in Gungahlin and put forward the proposition that getting the criminal law off the back of drug users was essential if real progress was to be made in improving the effectiveness of mental health services across the country. Unfortunately, the language to this effect that was included in the summary of that meeting did not find its way into the recently released blueprint outline of the commission’s thinking. Instead, the Commission has retreated to safe language like “Integration of self-directed interventions with clinician led treatment approaches”. It is alarming that the Commission in its blueprint specifically mentions “high rates of depression, drug and alcohol use” only in the context of “LGBTI+ and other sexuality, gender and bodily diverse people”.
There was an opportunity to ventilate some of these concerns in a webinar on 3 March involving Prof Steve Alsop of NIDRI and Jennifer Duncan, the CEO of the new Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council. The title of the webinar was “exploring the place of AOD services in the mental health system”. All speakers mentioned the dysfunctional relationships between mental health and drug and alcohol services. Competition between them has been characterised by an undignified scramble for scarce resources with mental health mostly coming out on top. This goes a long way to explain the lament that Alex Wodak has expressed at the lack of support by mental health practitioners for harm reduction measures that have been supported by other branches of the medical fraternity. To my mind, unsympathetic attitudes often expressed by psychiatrists to treating people with substance use disorders is not as serious an obstacle as it has been because of the increasing recognition that it is only by integrating treatment in a person-centred holistic way is it possible to resolve the very costly complexity of co-occurring mental health and substance dependency issues. This approach is assisted by the increasing influence of consumer and carer groups such as the Canberra Mental Health Forum in which I participate and wider recognition in the non-governmental social service community of the vital importance of social integration. One of the most telling remarks of participants on the 3 March webinar was that drug and alcohol services focus on psychosocial support rather than the medical models of care that characterise the mental health sector. These have to be brought together. To do this subjecting people struggling with substance use disorders to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system is an insurmountable obstacle that has to change.
May I ask of you two things:Please let me know your thoughts on this approach; andLet me know of any useful initiatives that you become aware of in this space.Bill Bush
Courtesy  Nurses for Drug Law Reform