Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment Bill 2020

I rise to speak on the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment Bill 2020. This bill basically does two things. The first is to legitimise the existing and effective harm-reduction practice of giving sterilised needles out to those who need to use the injections, and it also brings Victorian legislation in line with other Australian jurisdictions.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the members of the government’s department who gave us a briefing update some months ago now and just want to make note of one of the concerns of the opposition through me and the Shadow Minister for Health in the other place, Georgie Crozier. We were quite concerned about what would be the issue of somebody supplying a minor with injecting equipment. Now, there was a promise for us to have that put forward in an amendment to the bill, and to this point in time that has not happened. So my concern still remains that whilst I absolutely see the intention of the importance of being able to access sterile needles for people in a broader sense than just through the needle exchange program and through pharmacies, I am still concerned about the fact that that has not been addressed by the government, as promised.

The other thing this bill does is allow the drug naloxone to be more readily available. Now, naloxone, for those who do not know, is a drug that works by inhibiting the receptors so that opioids cannot be taken up. It is an amazing drug for those who have seen it in action, and I am sure the member for Melton will probably tell us some stories about it. And certainly during my time in the ambulance, many moons ago when I did my very short placement when training, it was nothing short of impressive to actually see the drug which we commonly Narcan. That is its trade name, not the generic name of naloxone. To see that actually reverse the opioid overdose situation is pretty phenomenal. But what is really sad is that we still see in our community so much use of drugs. It is really important that we help the community address the issues of overdose, and having that more available is something that will do that.

I bring to the Parliament’s attention that a lot of this work began under former Minister for Health Mary Wooldridge during the Liberal Napthine-Baillieu governments’ time. Former Minister Wooldridge embarked on a whole-of-government strategy to reduce the impact of alcohol and drug abuse in Victoria, and central to this policy was a focus on combating opioid overdoses. I congratulate her on the work she did, which has resulted in us being here today and having this legislation in place to improve the outcomes for people and not see as many overdoses as we do currently by having this drug naloxone more readily available.

I would also like to point out, though, there is more to do. It is the old situation where we do not just wait at the bottom of the cliff to pick people up in ambulances; we actually go up on the cliff and actually try to do some preventative work. That is how the health professionals like to work. And so having that naloxone is really bottom-of-the-cliff stuff. We need to get on top of the cliff, and one of the things we need to do is get more beds available for drug and alcohol withdrawal. I mean, I certainly worked a lot trying to find beds when I was practising in community health for people who wanted to withdraw from a drugs or alcohol addiction that they were suffering.

But more importantly, we cannot just leave it there. We then have to follow through with the availability of rehab beds. We have a project in Warrnambool. Currently South-West Coast has no rehab beds, and we all understand the importance of treating drugs and alcohol addiction as a health issue. The Lookout project has wide support in my community as it proposes an alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre to be built in Warrnambool to provide the much-needed beds for people who want to turn their life around and recover from their addictions. The community backs this project, as my community always does, and has come together and raised significant funds for this project. I have made numerous representations to the various ministers responsible over the last few years, and now the time has actually come for the government to show its support with a budgetary commitment in the May budget to make this centre a reality. There are no longer any excuses.

The Infrastructure Victoria draft 30-year strategy also highlights the importance of rural and regional rehab beds so people can recover from their addictions close to home where that support is available. This is exactly what the Lookout in my community will deliver, and I urge the government to take up that recommendation and fund this vital project.

What we see, and certainly what was my experience, is that we have so many challenges in the system where people actually make the commitment to getting well and things are put in place to sort of not embrace that. One of the things that I often saw was, with the way the government structured funding for organisations such as the WRAD Centre in my region, some of the dual-diagnosis challenges were not able to be accepted. So if someone had a mental health issue, they could go to the mental health team, but if they had an alcohol problem, they could not actually take them because they were not able to manage a dual-diagnosis situation. The same would be said for the drug and alcohol centre that was helping them with counselling. If they had a mental health issue, they would have the same issue—they were not able to work with someone with a dual diagnosis.

We have got so much more work we need to do when you see the figures that very, very damningly came out just a week ago. We saw a report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre that confirms that more than one in 20 Victorians reported using cocaine in 2019–20. That is one in 20 Victorians. That is the double the rate of 2016–17, with a total cocaine consumption increase of 80 per cent over the same period. It also reports that the pandemic and Victoria’s extended lockdown has been a boom time for drug dealers, with strong demand triggered as casual users sought entertainment and escape during the gruelling lockdown. To see Victoria named the heroin capital of Australia, with more than 45 per cent of total heroin consumption for the nation, is damning. So there is a lot of work to do, and that is why I say there is absolutely no excuse now for the government not to actually act and really get behind funding these projects.

We have seen this week with the royal commission handing down its findings into the mental health crisis that there is just no excuse. It is about getting on with helping people, often with mental health issues—not always—who are self-medicating. I certainly see this as a health issue, and we need to understand that we as parliamentarians and members opposite as the government have the responsibility to fund the health services in a way that make them accessible, because this is a health crisis. You should be able to enter a hospital, as we heard yesterday, and be addressed as a health issue, not made to feel like there is nothing on offer for you.

This is not special mental health. It should be funded as a normal health issue. When we discover a new technique we do not put a new levy on that to fund a new surgery; it is embraced into the health system. It is time we looked at mental health and drug addiction as issues that are health challenges and not make it too hard, having people and families feeling unsupported. It is time to stop talking the talk and address the issue as a whole-of-health approach. I will watch with interest the government’s ability to fund the necessary responsibilities they have, and I think they could start by using a lot of the waste funds better.

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