Welcome and Introduction

Brian McConnell, President, Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

Welcome and thank you for coming to this 7th Remembrance Ceremony for those who lose their lives to illicit drugs. We are also here for those struggling with both mental illness and drug use.

Welcome to those who will address us today:

Anne Deveson, parent, writer and broadcaster with a long involvement in social justice issues. She was the writer of the best selling book about the impact of schizophrenia on family life – “Tell me I’m here”

Brendan Smyth MLA, Shadow Minister for Health and Community Affairs

Rev’d Gray Birch, Parish Minister, Chaplain to the ACT Ambulance Services and former National Director of the Uniting Church Frontier Services

Welcome also to the choir, Healthy Voices, welcome parents, friends and other community members.

Opening address

We gather here today to remember those who have lost their life to illicit drugs

For me the bombings in Bali, the deaths and the families suffering caused many memories of my own loss to resurface. Many of us here today can understand the grief that they experienced. To hear the news and feel the bottom fall out of your world, to wonder why the rest of the world still goes on – traffic continues and people still go to work – when your world has stopped.

Those lost in Bali were significant because so many died in just one night while those lost to drugs is many more but occur over a longer time period and hence does not have the same impact. Nevertheless it is no less painful for the families and friends of those affected. That they may have used an illicit drug that contributed to their death does not mean that they were loved any less.

The better treatment and operational practices and a raising awareness of harm reduction strategies, much of which would not have happened if families had not spoken out, all these together with a shortage of heroin has thankfully led to fewer deaths. We know, though, that even at the height of the heroin drought, deaths were still occurring and that other drugs such as amphetamines, often linked to serious mental illnesses, have been flooding in.

Effects have changed but the distress of users, families and friends remains. This respite from deaths allows us to see further afield.

All is far from bright. Other problems come into clearer focus. We start to see the connectedness between drugs and organised crime, between drugs and social circumstances, and between drugs and mental health. Just this past week a conference of prison officers has brought to our attention the terrible fact of the large numbers of mentally ill in jails. Jails where treatments are inadequate and prison officers are under-equipped to deal with the issues that arise. All these things and more need our attention.

The debate rages about whether drugs cause mental illness or whether it is the reverse. For many families who are struggling with the reality of drugs and mental illness that debate is not relevant and may appear to be just an academic exercise.

This ceremony is to provide comfort both to those who have lost loved ones, those still struggling with addiction in the family and those struggling with both addiction and mental illness – to say that you are not alone and to encourage those responsible to provide better policies and treatments that will ease the heartbreak

Remembrance ceremonies are being held all over Australia this last weekend and today to remember lost loved ones and to show that their lives were valued. Many other countries have similar ceremonies throughout the year.

While some here today may have emotions that remind us of this tree in winter when the tree was bare. When its thorns stood out against the winter sky. But spring has brought new growth and today with all its symbolism we are standing under its cascade of fragrant blossoms with some hope of awakening further awareness of this issue.

4th November, 2002