Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (15:44): I am pleased to rise to speak to this amendment bill, the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment Bill 2020. I am pleased that we are speaking about it today, because tomorrow is International Harm Reduction Day and this bill is a harm reduction bill. This bill is not—as we normally see when we see an amendment to the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act 1981—about greater criminalisation, where we see increases in penalties and the broadening of offences under this legislation for people who use drugs.
Now, people use drugs for a lot of reasons, but those who use them problematically—90 per cent of them at least will have trauma in their history. They will have childhood abuse. They will have sexual abuse. They will have incredible disadvantage. And what we do? We lock them up in prison and we punish them for the harms that others have perpetrated against them, the harms that have caused them to move to harming themselves or numbing themselves from the pain and the pained bodies they are experiencing. So it is refreshing to see a bill that does not do this.
This bill is simple. It does two things. It makes naloxone easier. At the moment we have been rolling out naloxone in a far greater capacity than we have in previous years. Compared to other jurisdictions, we are well ahead of the curve in our naloxone subsidised programs, and I commend the government for that. We have seen naloxone being made available at needle and syringe exchange programs, which really has increased the availability of it and has increased the use of it as well. Using naloxone saves lives; we know that. The statistics show us that 60 per cent of people who overdose are with someone else; they are not alone. So if everyone had some naloxone, if all people who used opioids had naloxone, we could save a lot of lives, and there are a lot of lives to be saved. In 2018, 540 people died of an opioid overdose. That is greater than the road toll, significantly more than the road toll. And this is not just people who use heroin and the incredibly maligned poor citizens of North Richmond who are using the injecting room—
Ms Crozier: What about the residents?
Ms PATTEN: Many of them are residents of North Richmond. I was down there yesterday, Ms Crozier, just taking that up, and there has been—
Mr Finn: I didn’t see you at the public meeting though. That was disappointing.
Ms PATTEN: I was disappointed. I was not invited to the public meeting, Mr Finn.
Mr Finn: Everybody was invited. It was a public meeting.
Ms PATTEN: I would say that the people from that side of the house know that I am in North Richmond a lot, know that I speak to constituents in North Richmond a lot and know that I have been pushing to improve the circumstances in North Richmond for many years, long before you actually got on the bandwagon and started to try to break down and erode the good work that we have been trying to do there. However, let me go back to the bill at hand—
Ms Pulford: On a point of order, Deputy President, there is a disorderly level of objection occurring while Ms Patten is attempting to speak to this bill, and I would ask you to bring the house to order.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I was slightly distracted by Mr Limbrick’s conversation about the speaking order. If we could hear the member in silence, that would be good.
Ms PATTEN: Going back to the fact that we have well over 500 deaths a year from opioids, this is not just heroin, this is opioids, OxyContin, morphine and a whole range of accidental overdoses in this state. People are dying, and this bill will simplify the framework for the availability of naloxone. At the moment, in this sort of perverse way, the way it stands is the only person who is really allowed to use naloxone is the person that it has been prescribed too. Now, the person it has been prescribed to is generally the person who is unconscious, so this is about actually making it more easily available.
Some years ago, in fact just after I was elected, I did the naloxone training with Harm Reduction Victoria. It is a very simple process, and it will save lives. As I said, 60 per cent of people who die from an overdose are not alone. Imagine if we could save just half of those people. We could reduce the overdose deaths in the state, which, as I say, are tragically high.
This was a recommendation from the drug law reform inquiry, an inquiry that I initiated. I was also fortunate to be on the committee that ran that inquiry. There are 50 recommendations that were made by that inquiry in that report, and this is one of them—so one down, about 48 to go. I certainly think this is in the right direction—that we start recognising that addiction is a health issue. Addiction is not something to which you can just say, ‘Get over it, get better’, or the kinds of things that we used to say about depression, the kind of things we used to say other mental health issues: ‘Oh look, just get over yourself. Cheer up, cheer up’. It is the same with addiction. We constantly say, ‘If they could just stop doing it, if they’d just stop, everything would be okay’. That is not what addiction is about. Addiction is a very complex, complicated issue. And this helps to keep more people alive. Like the supervised injecting room in North Richmond, it keeps people alive. So I am pleased that we will see these changes for naloxone, and I have no doubt that we will see an increase in the uptake of naloxone as a result of these reforms.
The second part of this bill again is a harm reduction section. We had this probably not enforced, but if you were not actually certified or licensed to hand out a syringe, it was an offence to hand out a syringe. So people who might have been picking up syringes for others were committing an offence by providing them, and this bill finally and happily fixes that anomaly.
We know that Australia actually led the world in our harm reduction approaches. We were the first country in the world that actually started supplying needles and syringes to people who used intravenous drugs. And guess what? We did not get the rampage, the ravages, of HIV into our drug-using population that we saw in other jurisdictions. We saw it from the US to Russia, where their highest levels of HIV were actually in their drug-using communities. Australia did not see that. Australia was forward thinking and bipartisan, and we had the health minister and the shadow health minister stand on the steps at federal Parliament in unison to say we had to take a different approach and it had to be about peer education and it had to be about harm reduction. That was the beginning of our harm reduction principles that this bill goes to. So in fixing these anomalies, we are further doing this because of not only HIV but also things like hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is not only life-threatening—and will eventually kill the person. It is also, from an economic perspective, incredibly expensive when someone gets hep C because they will go on to get liver cancer, they will go on to have liver damage and we will go on to support them. So the more we can do in preventing bloodborne viruses like hepatitis C, like HIV, the better it is for our population. And I think it also, to me, sends that important message that we actually care for our citizens—that we care for all citizens, not just the ones who are like us: we care for the citizens who are disadvantaged, we care for the citizens with mental health issues, we care for the citizens who are misusing drugs.
Both of these also go towards one of the biggest problems for people who use drugs in seeking assistance, and that is stigma—the stigma of being a drug user, the stigma of having an addiction. It is not something people want to talk to their GP about. It is not something that people speak publicly about, and we stigmatise them. We hear it very often in this very chamber—stigmatising, denigrating people who use drugs.
This enables some of those people to not have to go into a chemist and pick up needles. It means that, yes, they can continue to get them from peers and we can continue to ensure that if someone is going to inject drugs in Victoria, they will do it with safety, they will do it minimising their risk of bloodborne viruses.
I think we can go a lot further. We know that the biggest danger of drug use is the criminalisation of drug use. We know that the biggest harm to someone who uses drugs is the laws that prohibit the use of drugs. That is what kills more people. So I hope that this is part of a journey that we are going to take, and I hope it is not a long journey. I hope it is a path that we are going to go on towards greater drug law reform, to treating drug users and treating drug use as the health issue that it is and not the criminal one that we insist on perpetuating. We know the majority of the people who are in our jails use drugs or used drugs in the months leading up to them going to jail. So what do we do? The one point where I agree with Ms Crozier on this is that we do need more treatment; we do need more rehabilitation. We have a three-pillar approach to harm reduction, and that is harm reduction, law enforcement and prevention. Treatment should be the fourth pillar. Throughout Europe it is a four-pillared approach. Now, Australia led the way, I grant you, but we cannot stand on our laurels, and we no longer are leading the way. Other countries are doing things like decriminalising the use of drugs and decriminalising the possession of small amounts of drugs. Look at Portugal. Their overdose rates are nothing; I think they had five in 2018 compared to 500 here. So what they are doing is working. It has been 20 years. The evidence shows we can save lives.
Just going to another one of Ms Crozier’s points about people who use drugs and are under the age of 18, imagine being under the age of 18 and being so hurt and harmed that you have to numb yourself from life—being so hurt and harmed that you have moved on probably from alcohol to using injecting drugs. We need to keep those people as safe as possible. We need to connect with them as much as possible, and to deny them safe needles and syringes—why would you do that? That is like denying condoms for children, condoms for under 18s: ‘Just say no, and we’ll prohibit the use of preventative measures’. That is not how harm reduction works, and you cannot say, ‘Harm reduction for adults and not for children’.
I think this is a sensible bill. It meets some of the recommendations from the drug law reform report. I know that I join with some of my colleagues in here who will continue to advocate for greater reform and drug law reform. Rather than amending this act, let us repeal this act. I commend this bill.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading speech 6/5/21