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Government response to ice report offers once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle problem

December 2015

The Turnbull Government’s emphasis on prevention, treatment, education and research in its response to the National Ice Taskforce report has been welcomed as a breakthrough by one of the health organisations most affected by the drug’s impact on individuals and the community. 

St Vincent’s Health Australia said while law enforcement had an important role to play in the criminal justice response, it was through empowering communities, raising awareness, resourcing treatment and withdrawal services, training more health professionals, and gathering better data on our efforts that we would have the most significant impact.

The organisation’s Sydney public hospital – St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney – has the greatest number of emergency department presentations and the largest number of admissions related to methamphetamines in NSW. 

Since 2009, the hospital has also experienced the largest increase in presentations related to ice/methamphetamines in the state.

St Vincent’s Health Australia’s CEO, Toby Hall, said the Taskforce’s report – and the government’s response – had the potential of being a watershed in public health and harm prevention.

“The government has clearly listened to the Taskforce and those working on the frontline of the problem,” Mr Hall said. 

“Its recommendations around tailoring solutions to the needs of individual communities; a national public awareness campaign on methamphetamine and its effects; better connections between services and agencies to help people in need; significant extra resources for treatment services; and more training for frontline workers and GPs to help in prevention and early intervention have been embraced.

“Given what St Vincent’s knows about the need for more research into treatments and training for frontline staff, we’re particularly pleased to see the government intends to establish a Centre of Excellence in this area.

“Through our public hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne, St Vincent’s has long been on the frontline responding to methamphetamine-related problems. 

“It’s that perspective and experience that tells us that the Taskforce’s report offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the settings right and tackle methamphetamine effectively. 

“From what we see in its response, we’re optimistic the government is equal to the task. 

“In welcoming today’s response, it’s particularly important to recognise both the responsible Minister, Senator Fiona Nash, and the Chair of the Taskforce, Ken Lay, for steering this process to this point. I think they’ve both done an exceptional job.”

Associate Professor Nadine Ezard, Clinical Director of St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney’s Alcohol and Drug Service, similarly welcomed the government’s emphasis on treatment, prevention, training, research and education.

“As someone who has worked in drug and alcohol treatment for more than 20 years, I know from experience that taking a tough ‘law and order’ approach at the expense of prioritising treatment, prevention and education has no chance of succeeding,” said Associate Professor Ezard.

“I was encouraged by Ken Lay’s observation during the Taskforce’s deliberations that we couldn’t ‘arrest our way out’ of methamphetamine-related problems, and I’m glad to see the government’s response aligns with that view.

"There are a number of reasons why it’s so important for us to be placing an emphasis on treatment, prevention, training, research and education when it comes to addressing methamphetamine use disorders. 

“Firstly, there’s a significant gap in clinical research to discover new and more effective treatments for people with methamphetamine dependence. We also need more resources to meet the demand for treatment. Without those two things, greater numbers of ice users will go without the help they need.

“I also can’t stress how important greater education and awareness is to both informing the community as well as encouraging more people who are running into problems with using methamphetamine to seek treatment.

“The images we see on the evening news – of violent people intoxicated on methamphetamine being restrained by police – isn’t the norm. While of course it occurs, most people who use methamphetamine do so less often than once a month.

“Those who use more frequently and are running into problems don’t recognise themselves in the images presented on television and think their problem isn’t severe enough to need help. 

"Although health and social problems may arise after a year of regular use – the loss of a job, the loss of family and relationships, and the onset of mental health problems – help-seeking is often delayed for up to 10 years, during which time methamphetamine use disorder typically becomes more severe, which makes successful treatment much harder. 

“So we need our awareness campaigns to reduce stigma and show a more realistic picture of methamphetamine-related problems if we’re to encourage more people to seek help, and do it earlier.

“And if we’re going to be able to give people who use methamphetamine the support they need, then we need to invest in people. 

“Primary health workers and GPs require skills development in early detection and conducting brief interventions. Alcohol, drug and mental health workers also need their skills enhanced.

“So I’m particularly pleased to see the government’s announcement of the Centre for Excellence,” said Associate Professor Ezard.