A young woman named Sylvia is the latest Australian to find heart-breaking notoriety by dying at a music festival.
Like all those who’ve died from drug use before her, the death of this 25-year-old at Stereosonic was both tragic and preventable. But lurching towards predictable responses like beefing up law enforcement and police presence at music festivals is not the answer.
More creative solutions are required, and harm reduction should be the centrepiece of any response.
Like giving condoms to teenagers or exchanging dirty needles for clean ones, testing drugs that people are going to take, with or without your help, will save lives. It’s currently illegal in Australia – because it’s illegal to take the drugs as well – but that’s not the case in every country.
I visited Portugal earlier this year where they’ve decriminalised all personal drug use. That doesn’t mean drugs are legal to buy or sell, but it means there are no criminal penalties for consuming them. Serious penalties still apply to people dealing drugs, but since 2001 Portugal has poured almost all the money they used to spend on law enforcement into providing treatment and social supports for those who seek help.
Watch Senator Di Natale discussing drug law reform in the Senate earlier this year. Post continues below.
Compared to European neighbours, Portugal is one of the few counties to have witnessed a fall in problematic drug use and addiction. Overdoses and the number of drug-related HIV cases have also fallen dramatically.
That’s Australia’s biggest problem. We’re spending billions fighting a losing battle against illicit drugs — three times as much on law and order as we are on providing treatment.
When I was a GP in Victoria, I saw it for myself. An 18-year-old kid who’d been injecting almost every drug available finally came to me for help, but we weren’t able to get him a bed – there wasn’t anywhere that could provide him treatment. He ended up needing heart surgery to deal with an infection he got from injecting drugs.
He wasn’t the only one. The patients I saw had a lot in common. They struggled with physical dependence on a drug and they struggled to hold onto those things that anchor us in our lives: family, friends, a job, a stable home, a support network. They often had other health problems to deal with, including mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and psychosis.