OLIVIA MONTGOMERY: Tasmania’s prison population is soaring — and four in five inmates have a substance use issue
TODAY is “Support. Don’t Punish” Day — raising awareness of the harm caused when we treat people who use drugs as criminals rather than as people with a health issue who need treatment.
This worldwide campaign wants to leave behind politics, ideologies and prejudice, and prioritise the health and welfare of people who use drugs. Today’s day of action is an opportunity to change the approach — rather than punishing people who use drugs, let’s support them.
Most of us know someone who uses drugs, or we may use drugs ourselves — whether it’s alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, methamphetamines or pain killers, drug use is common.
A recent Australian survey found almost half the population had used illicit drugs, and three-quarters of us had drunk alcohol in the past 12 months.
In recent years Australian governments have spent increasing amounts tackling alcohol and other drug issues, but it is disappointing that most of the money has been spent on law enforcement and policing, not on ways to reduce the harm caused to people who use drugs.
This funding gap exists despite the overwhelming evidence proving that law enforcement responses, notably those related to imprisonment, are far less cost effective and less successful in addressing alcohol and other drug issues, than support and treatment.
This longstanding issue continues to be raised and has led to the frequent use of catchphrases like “the war on drugs is failing” and “we cannot keep trying to arrest our way out of the illicit drug problem”.
In Tasmania, problematic alcohol and other drug use is increasing, our prison population is bursting at the seams and the harms from alcohol and other drug use are infiltrating our communities. Something needs to change.
I’m not suggesting that the Tasmanian Government legalise illicit drugs. There will always be a role for a strong criminal justice response to the manufacturing, supplying and trafficking of large quantities of illicit drugs.
Rather, I echo the growing general agreement that the approach of treating someone’s personal drug use as a criminal matter is inappropriate and ineffective, and creates stigma that pushes people further down a dark path, or into hiding.
Many people in our community judge those who use drugs — it is seen as a personal choice or a moral failing or a situation they are entirely responsible for.
Yet a large proportion of people who have problematic drug use have histories of complex childhood trauma, homelessness, poor education and a lack of family support.
Others accidentally mismanage prescribed pain medication and before they know it are in a vicious cycle of drug use.
In my almost two decades of working in both the justice and alcohol and drug sectors, I have seen first-hand that locking people away does nothing to address substance use issues, most of which are the underlying cause of offending behaviour.
In fact, repeated imprisonment leads to institutionalisation, cumulative trauma, isolation from family and friends, access to harder drugs, all of which impacts dramatically on someone’s ability to gain control over their drug use and rebuild their life on release.
In any Australian prison, 80 per cent of the inmates have a problem with alcohol or other drugs. Our Tasmanian prison system is exploding with about 670 people incarcerated, and these figures indicate that well over 500 have a substance use issue. So, what are we doing to address this?
The prison is overcrowded, drug use is rife and there is minimal alcohol and drug support available, with endless waiting lists to see one of only two alcohol and drug counsellors or to get involved in a program.
Despite many government aspirational strategic visions, I often ponder, why are we just warehousing these people? Why are we not seriously investing in breaking the cycle of (often intergenerational) crime and drug use? Why are we still simply housing these folk for the period of their sentence, then sending them back into the community, only to often fail and return back through the criminal justice system’s revolving door?
The argument for drug treatment instead of punishment is simple — it is cost-effective, and it works. It costs the community about $110,000 to imprison one person for a year, and with more than half of released prisoners returning to prison within two years, that’s an expensive option which is clearly not working.
On the flip side, for every $1 invested in alcohol and drug treatment, society gains $7, with savings in healthcare costs, reduced interactions with the criminal justice system and clear benefits in an individual’s mental health, relationships and sense of general wellbeing.
In 2007, Tasmania took a step in the right direction and introduced the now very successful Court Mandated Drug Diversion Program, which addresses the cycle of illicit drug use and crime for offenders with a lengthy history of illicit drug related offending. Eligible offenders are diverted into treatment for their drug use rather than serve a term of imprisonment.
This is by no means a soft option. Participants are required to abstain from all drug use, have regular urine tests, and attend weekly or fortnightly counselling, treatment and court. Clients say that serving a term of imprisonment would be much easier for them, because it’s what they’re used to, and it’s what they know. But imprisonment does not work to address their issues. These clients return into the community after serving their time, usually none the wiser, and not having accessed any alcohol or drug treatment support due to the significant under-resourcing in our prison system. And so the cycle continues.
If Tasmania really wants to tackle the drug problem, then we need to address it with prevention and treatment. More money needs to be invested in initiatives like the Court Mandated Drug Diversion Program (currently capped at 120 places statewide) and other community-based treatment programs, as well as increased resourcing for alcohol and drug support in the prison system.
It’s time Tasmania reached out to people who use drugs with a hand, not handcuffs.
Olivia Montgomery is a former solicitor in Hobart and is sector development manager at the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council.