Australia’s leading international student news website

Drugs in focus

Elizabeth Yick

Wed Jul 06 2011

Drugs in Focus Film Festival, Melbourne

THE Drugs in Focus Film Festival was held on June 23, as part of Australia’s Drug Action Week. In it’s fourth year, the annual event held is in iconic CBD back-alley Hosier Lane. Amongst the street art a selection of short films relating to drug use was screened. The films were then followed by a discussion session where the audience was given the chance to have various questions answered by a selected panel of social workers and experts.

Meld Reporter Elizabeth Yick went along. These are her thoughts on the issue.

The Drugs in Focus Film Festival was held in Melbourne's iconic Hosier Lane on June 23. Photo: Dion F. Soejoedi, Kurioz Media Production

The Drugs in Focus Film Festival was held in Melbourne’s iconic Hosier Lane on June 23. Photo: Dion F. Soejoedi, Kurioz Media Production

“It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on drug-users.”

The comment may have been made in light-hearted jest, but the truth in the statement resonated through the audience at the Drugs in Focus Film Festival.

Huddled in an unevenly paved laneway and surrounded by snippets of street graffiti, I somehow felt that the location of the event made the entire issue more relatable than ever. On reflection, my association of “dark dodgy back-alley” with “drug use” was a natural confirmation of what many had been trying to campaign against – the societal marginalization of the drug abuse problem.

We all know that stereotypical caricature of a “druggie” – a snivelling, mildly-insane individual, devoid of dignity and undeserving of respect; begging or stealing, sometimes resorting to violence and prostitution even… all just to get that next hit to satisfy their senseless cravings.

It is often too easy for society to shun drug users, relegating them to dangerous persons that are unsafe, criminal, and likely to inflict harm onto other “innocent” members of society. We tend to forget that drug users are, in fact, also human beings; they are people who have family, friends, hobbies, passions, and even aspirations. For “normal” society, drug abuse is an “out of sight, out of mind” type of problem. Maybe it is just more comfortable for most of us that way, and the marginalization of this “dirty criminal habit” has actually made it all too convenient for us to disregard the issue when it is not posed directly in front of us.

This is unfortunate. The problem is only amplified by our refusal to acknowledge the issue and address it openly.

Bill Stronach, founding member of Harm Reduction International was the night's MC. Photo: Dion F. Soejoedi, Kurioz Media Production

Bill Stronach, founding member of Harm Reduction International was the night’s MC. Photo: Dion F. Soejoedi, Kurioz Media Production

The short film “La Liga” shown at the festival this year was a touching documentary about a group of drug users who found a sense of purpose and belonging within a street soccer league established by the social workers in the neighbourhood. The establishment of a positive identity within the wider community is perhaps one of the most important factors in the rehabilitation process of recreational drug abuse. Acceptance and emotional support is a corner-stone to individuals trying to “shake the habit” and reintegrate into society. As one past user stated, “they always make it like it’s us against them, but that just makes it harder for us. They say they are scared, but we are scared too. The way they look at us is scary, and very demoralising. If there is to be an improvement, they have got to come to us.”

Of course, it would be naïve to think that understanding, acceptance, and support is the whole solution. It is merely one snippet of it. In one of the other short films screened which outlined various harm reduction policies, a social worker stated bluntly, “whether we like it or not, people are using drugs, and dying, so all we are really doing is to stop people from dying before they have the chance to clean up. Is that so wrong?”

Sadly, many would answer negatively to the question she posed. Harm reduction continues to be a controversial topic – with some members of society advocating the establishment of injecting rooms and the introduction of drugs such as Nalaxone; whilst others are adamantly against such policies, concerned with the idea that limiting the spread of diseases like H.I.V. and reducing the fatality of overdoses would indirectly encourage recreational drug abuse by significantly lessening its risk.

City of Melbourne councillor Jennifer Kanis among the guests at the festival. Photo: Dion F. Soejoedi, Kurioz Media Production

City of Melbourne councillor Jennifer Kanis among the guests at the festival. Photo: Dion F. Soejoedi, Kurioz Media Production

When I raised the topic with some friends, one voiced his opinion and stated that whilst he can understand the need for the provision of clean syringes and the establishment of centres where drug users can “shoot up” under supervision, he was hesitant to support the legalization of a drug that could counter the fatal effects of overdose. “If anyone can get their hands on this drug, then it is like saying, you can take drugs and not worry about dying from an overdose. Then surely you would be more inclined to do it. If the drug was legalized, it would almost be like we are condoning recreational drug use,” he said.

I had to admit that he raised a valid point in the argument – when it comes to harm reduction, what is the line between actively saving lives and unintentionally encouraging recreational drug abuse?

This is a question that many have debated about over the years, and all around the world. However, Australians may wish to look to Switzerland, which has been one of the most successful countries in terms of managing the problem of recreational drug abuse. Their national policy is focused upon four elements – prevention, therapy, harm reduction and prohibition. In the early 1990s, Switzerland was one of the first countries to establish supervised injection rooms for drug users, providing not only clean syringes but also the presence of medical personnel. It was also one of the first countries to have initiated heroin-assisted treatments (where the chronically addicted are treated to medically approved dosages of heroin with the aim of “weaning” them off the drug over-time).

Credibly, the statistics for drug abuse, as well as the number of drug-related crimes have fallen significantly for Switzerland in the past couple of decades. But whether other countries, such as Australia, will be willing to adopt similar policies remains to be seen. Drug policy has always been a sensitive topic for governments, and often amidst all the political correctness and concern for winning ballots, the well-being of the true victims of the problem – the drug users themselves – is entirely overlooked.

I feel that in order to find a viable answer to this problem, we should not approach the issue with the mentality of “us” (the “normal” society) and “them” (the “druggies”). It is important to remember and acknowledge that the users – despite their drug abuse – are also part of our society. A sense of community is extremely important in facilitating the rehabilitation process, and an ultimately sustainable drug policy will not be one that is established by “us” and foisted upon “them” – it will be one where all parties are consulted and are able to contribute to the long-term solution.