Aust must end 'war on drugs': RACGP

Royal Australian College Of General Practitioners

Monday, 26 June, 2023

Aust must end 'war on drugs': RACGP

A new report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has found that there were 1788 drug-induced deaths across Australia in 2021 — the equivalent of five drug-induced deaths every day.

Natural and semi-synthetic pharmaceutical opioids including morphine and oxycodone are the primary opioids involved in overdose deaths, followed by heroin.

Criticising the populist ‘war on drugs’ approach as “pointless”, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has called for action in light of the country’s high drug-induced death rate.

“If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is,” said RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins.

Higgins said that Australia had taken certain positive steps, including the Queensland Government expanding police drug diversion programs for people carrying small amounts of illicit drugs, but there was a long way to go.

“New South Wales doesn’t even offer police the discretion to send a person to a diversion program, only the ACT and the Queensland have given the green light to pill testing, and the entire country has just two medically supervised injecting facilities,” she said.

“There are also limitations affecting people across Australia including access to ready and affordable drug and alcohol treatment, particularly for those with opioid dependence. That must change if we want to reverse current trends and save lives at risk.

“The war on drugs mindset has got us nowhere and it’s high time for change. As a nation, we gain precisely nothing from throwing the book at people, treating alcohol and other drug use like some sort of moral failing, stigmatising people and putting them in the ‘too-hard basket’. It’s not working, five people are dying on average per day, many of them from opioid drugs. It’s time for governments to act decisively and put in place the measures that have been proven to work in Australia and overseas,” she said.

RACGP Alcohol and Other Drugs spokesperson Dr Hester Wilson said governments across Australia must ramp up their efforts and save lives. Wilson praised the government’s announcement that it would invest in increased access to opioid dependency therapy through pharmacies.

“It’s critical that we significantly scale up access to these treatments because opioid dependence treatment programs, including pharmacotherapy services like methadone or buprenorphine, can make all the difference,” she said.

“More must be done to ensure that people can access the treatment they need in communities across Australia, including rural areas, so that no one should be left behind. A key factor reported on recently, is cost, with medications on the opioid treatment program requiring patients to pay a private pharmacy dispensing fee of between $5 to $15 a day. Many people with opioid dependence simply can’t afford this and so they go without. Let’s remedy that right away, because every life matters. People with opioid dependency need help to get their lives on track and removing all roadblocks stopping them from getting the treatment that could save their lives must happen without delay,” Wilson said.

Wilson advocated against limiting the number of times people using drugs could be diverted from the criminal justice system into rehab programs. She also stressed that it was crucial that the government increase access to naloxone, a drug that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose.

“Not enough people know about this incredible, life-saving drug, including the fact that an intranasal spray version is now available meaning you don’t have to inject it. It’s vital to spread the message that naloxone is now free under the Take Home Naloxone program at locations including pharmacies, treatment centres, needle and syringe programs and custodial release programs, and you don’t need a prescription. Let’s boost awareness amongst GPs, other healthcare workers including nurses, people who use opioid drugs, people who know people who use these drugs and the broader community — everyone needs to know about the benefits of naloxone,” Wilson said.

“As I have said many times before — people who have a problematic relationship with alcohol and other drugs, including opioids like oxycodone, need help, support and compassion. Throwing them into gaol or judging them or pushing them to the margins of society doesn’t achieve anything and, in my view, diminishes us as a nation. Every person’s life matters, it’s as simple as that,” she said.

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