real life

There are parents desperate for their child to commit a crime. It might just save their life.

“I am a senator of Australia and I have a 21-year-old son that has a problem with ice,” Independent senator Jacqui Lambie told the Australian parliament in August 2015.

Lambie is a self-made woman. As a senator she has status. Only months before, in May 2015, she launched her own political party – the Jacqui Lambie Network, to fight for the “rights of average Australians”. Before politics, she’d achieved the rank of corporal in the Australian Army.

None of this mattered because, at home, facing a 21-year-old son she used to know, Lambie realised her possessions were going missing. That her son, Dylan, was stealing from her to fund his habit. She had no control. She couldn’t make him listen. He wouldn’t get help voluntarily: “I’m not talking to my son anymore, I’m talking to a drug,” she told the parliament.

She pleaded with the government to introduce legislation that would allow parents to force their children into rehabilitation. “Getting some involuntary detox so the parents can take control of the child’s situation and get the kids the help they need is the best way forward,” she said.

Last month, another mother asked the same thing.

Leanne Thompson was flying to Melbourne from Brisbane each week to visit her son Daniel, 25 – a marijuana addict, living on the streets of Melbourne’s CBD.

“I have on a number of occasions slept nearby him on the street. I’ve taken a sleeping bag, blankets and garbage bags,” she told 3AW‘s Tony Jones early in July. “I’m keeping an eye on him to make sure he’s okay and to let him know that we still care about him and we’re there for him if he needs us.”

Like Lambie’s son before him, Daniel “doesn’t feel he has a problem”. Thompson said: “I would put our son into rehab tomorrow if he were to agree, but he won’t.”

Dylan Lambie did end up receiving treatment. He attended a rehabilitation centre in Queensland in October 2015 after facing court for offences around counterfeit money, drug possession, and driving while his licence was suspended.

The sole reason he went to rehab? His probation orders stipulated he be admitted to a full-time program and it’s a story shared by thousands.

In most states in Australia, drug users can’t be forced to receive help unless they’ve committed a crime.

In South Australia for example, police are required to refer people who are arrested for drug possession into treatment instead of the justice system as a first-line option.

It’s a system that’s proved an effective method for reducing crime, Nicole Lee Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction wrote for The Conversation. She also mentioned drug courts, where users who’ve committed non-violent crimes can opt for rehab instead of prison if they plead guilty.

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But, throughout all of this, parents are left waiting.

They’re facing a heartbreaking reality. There are three ways the situation can go:

They can keep trying to persuade their child to seek help voluntarily;

They can wait until their son or daughter becomes so sick that their life is at risk, or they’re at risk of taking their own lives  – then they’d be eligible for a 14 day forced rehabilitation in Victoria (a court order is still required), or a 28 day stint in a NSW clinic, for example.

Or, they can wait to see if their child is caught, arrested, and charged of a crime by the justice system in order to receive help.

The Secret Life of Samuel Johnson. Post continues below.

New South Wales was the first state to trial forced rehabilitation. The legislation stems from the 2007 Health Drug and Alcohol Treatment Act, which stipulates the state should “provide for the health and safety of persons with severe substance dependence through involuntary detention, care, treatment and stabilisation”.

Only authorised medical officers are permitted to sign the paperwork that mandates “short term care” in NSW – up to 28 days initially, with a possible three-month extension – to people “who have experienced, or are at risk of, serious harm and whose decision-making capacity is considered to be compromised due to their substance use” according to the NSW government’s website.

Addiction specialist Dr Lee Nixon was once against involuntary rehabilitation. So much so that in 2013, he quit his work in the Northern Territory to protest the legislation there that allows alcoholics to be locked up against their will. But Dr Nixon changed his mind when he went on to work in Orange, NSW, heading up one of the state’s two involuntary drug rehabilitation centres.

“We are gathering reasonable data from NSW, and it shows that mandatory treatment appears to be helpful to our particular group of patients,” he told Australian Doctor last year.

“We have a very well-supported program here with good follow-up opportunities around treatment.”

In 2016 Western Australia followed suit, passing legislation that allowed methamphetamine users to be forced into rehabilitation even when they had not committed a crime. (The state had the highest rate of methamphetamine use in the country at that time).

“I’ve got a responsibility to balance the rights of the individual with also protecting the community, and I need to do that with the burglary and the assaults and the other side of things that do tend to happen with people with a meth problem,” Mental Health Minister Andrea Mitchell told the ABC  at the time.

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“And I also have a duty of care to protect that individual and give that individual the best possible chance of coming out of that and being a responsible citizen.”

But the contradictions continued in other states. In Queensland, for example, a person can be admitted to medical care against their will if they mentally “lack the capacity to make their own decisions“, but not if they’re dependent on drugs.

So many parents are left without option. Image via Getty.

Most certainly, the arguments against forced rehabilitation are convincing. It's extreme to take someone's liberty against their will. The danger it presents to the bonds of society and to individuals, to be permitted to imprison someone who is living their life as they wish, is - as Dr Nixon said in 2013 - a "terribly slippery slope".

There is also the question of effectiveness. How much difference can a 28-day stay really make? It's long enough to save a life, but not necessarily change behaviour.

But those parents whose children are hopelessly addicted to drugs, they continue to carry the same weight of helplessness: They are waiting. Waiting for their child to listen; waiting for their child's health to fail; waiting for their child to commit a crime.

It's the only way, really, that their child might receive help within in a system that's designed to only pick them up once they've well and truly failed. Surely there's a better way.

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