Money. Funding. Investment. We’re all working hard to make it work hard, particularly those working in the community services sector.
It is no different for the alcohol, tobacco and other drug (ATOD) sector but it is especially front-of-mind as the Tasmanian State Budget for 2022-23 is tabled this week.
Every year the ATDC provides advice to the Tasmanian Government on what funding priorities would benefit the delivery of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs services and programs across the state.
Recently I’ve heard advice that we should keep our expectations low in regards to what the ATOD sector will receive in the upcoming budget. I completely understand the strategy behind this message, and don’t begrudge anyone for saying this. I understand their well-intentioned desire to minimise disappointment if the outcome is less than desired.
Perhaps in any other situation these words might assist, but not in this one.
The Tasmanian ATOD sector has been chronically underfunded for many years, and while we do our best to amplify our voices and priorities, this underfunding continues to be a significant challenge for two reasons.
Firstly, we are often drowned out over other community health and social issues. To give context, in May this year the Tasmanian Government announced a bilateral agreement for mental health and suicide prevention with the Commonwealth. This is a fantastic outcome for mental health services in our state and will see an additional $46 million injected into the state over the next 5 years (on top of the reported $108 million invested by the Tasmanian Government). I applaud our mental health colleagues on their work and the outcomes achieved, and only use this as a comparison to the very modest $6.9 million (over three years) that the ATDC has flagged in it’s 2022-23 State Budget priority statement for 4 priorities that would benefit the Tasmanian ATOD sector greatly.
These priorities included funding to introduce peer workers into community-managed services, increase access to community-based withdrawal services, continue the Lived Experience Advocate Service and progress the work to establish a shared data repository for AOD data and information. Add to this the small number of requests from individual community-managed services to address rising operational costs, and a reported few million from our public AOD services. Next year we will also looking at an ongoing investment into a funded independent organisation for people with a lived experience of ATOD use. All these requests are reasonable – too reasonable I would argue (and do).
The barrier we constantly battle is my second point, which is a concerning conscious and unconscious bias against drugs. Not just those who may chose to use alcohol, tobacco or other substances, but a stigma towards those who work in the sector and our attempts to prioritise policy and investment. As someone working at the ‘top-end of town’, I hear the direct comments that the government just simply ‘don’t want to talk about drugs’ and feel the subtle pushback that comes from unanswered questions, delayed responses, or lack of action on key priorities.
I know that this is frustrating to those working in the sector, and to those who know people who choose to seek support for their drug use.
While there are wins in some areas across the community, there continues to be concerns in others. For example, while the number of Tasmanians smoking might be decreasing, the number of Tasmanians drinking at harmful levels does not. While there are reports of reduced use of some illicit drugs, there are reported rises in others. The impact of alcohol in our community continues to cause harm and distress for thousands of Tasmanians, including those in our community who are most vulnerable, experiencing homelessness and disadvantage or have a co-occurring mental health concern. While community discussion on the impacts of criminalisation of substances like cannabis, and the medicinal use of drugs like MDMA (ecstasy) are growing in other places, in Tasmania we are not well-placed to contribute due to an absence of active strategies to address alcohol or other drug use in the community.
There’s so much opportunity for us to have a positive impact in this area for hundreds and thousands of Tasmanians. Regardless, we continue to scratch our heads at why it is so hard to get drug policy, reform and investment on the agenda.
I know that I will be going into this State Budget process continuing to hold firm that we should not be asked to lower our expectations. Rather, I would say with a lot of respect, that others need to lift their expectations of how we should be responding to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in Tasmania. To do otherwise would be to ignore the existing and upcoming challenges that drug use has on the community and will continue to have.
As I write this, I am hopeful that with the Premier of Tasmania also being the Minister for Health, that this may be a pivotal moment for our community where we start to lift our expectations.
Chief Executive Officer