Loving God. & Neighbour.

It’s a long way from Dubbo to Sydney, especially when you’re in need of medical help.

I have worked for almost thirty years in rural and regional communities across New South Wales, and the resources we expect at our fingertips in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong are beyond the reach of many people in other places.

If the medical help you need is linked to drug dependency, then rural people are consistently told that the nearest support is more than four hundred kilometres and a long waiting list away. I have heard countless stories from parents and families, about their despair at our current approach to drugs and the lack of services for the people they love, who are asking for help – now.

It is why the Uniting Church (NSW and ACT) is such a strong advocate for changing our drug laws. It’s why so many groups across our community are echoing our call.

Drug dependence is often misunderstood as a predominately urban issue. The reality is regional and rural areas of our country suffer a double blow on this issue.

Families, wherever they are, suffer the same loss and devastation if their loved ones develop drug dependence. However, country areas frequently lack the necessary services for drug treatment that are predominately situated in our cities.

This was the case with Dubbo and the story of Shantell – a Dubbo resident who wanted to receive treatment for her drug use, but the closest, suitable treatment was four hundred kilometres away in Sydney.

It’s not just the distance. Relocating for treatment can be really difficult, especially if you have children. There is also the chronic lack of places to access treatment – the wait can be over eighteen months.

It is a long way away from Dubbo to Sydney. In 2018 I walked part of the way, alongside many others, joining our Long Walk to Treatment as we sought to draw attention to the issue of fairer treatment for those people in regional areas who live with drug dependency.

Last month, the NSW Government announced it would allocate $7.5m to set up a new treatment centre in Dubbo. It was a very welcome move. But we need to do more.

I welcome news that the NSW Government is considering changing the law regarding small quantities of drugs and instead introduce a three-strike warning system.

These sensible measures are the sign of a Government that is listening to the medical and legal experts and making laws based on the evidence.

Too many people who use drugs are made to live in the shadows, looked down upon with shame and stigma and therefore don’t seek help because of our current drug laws.

We all want a society in which all people are valued, and their dignity as human beings recognised.

Parents want to know that their kids will come home safe from a night out. They also want to know that if their children develop drug dependency, our community will help keep them safe until they can get treatment. This move by the NSW government is to be applauded.

This long-awaited change is, currently, a flicker of hope. It has yet to be passed by Cabinet. No doubt there will be those critics in our community who will argue against doing anything which is not punitive.

But if you listen to the experts, as I have during my years in ministry and as Moderator, you will hear former police commissioners like Mick Palmer, you will hear doctors and other health experts, policy wonks, lawyers and community workers all speak about the importance of treating drug dependency as a health and social issue.

It may surprise many people to find a church on the frontline of such a campaign. It should be expected – Jesus’s essential command is “Love God and Love Your Neighbour”. We are here in this debate, because our faith places us here; caring for people and their families especially when we know the harm drug dependency is causing in our community.

The impact of drug dependency is being exacerbated by our approach to policing drug laws and punishing those who use even small amounts of drugs. It means those who might otherwise seek help for drug dependency, hide in the shadows of society, shamed.

When we treat drug use as a health and social issue – and this government proposal is an initial step in that direction – police will have greater resources to be tough on large-scale drug trafficking and violent crime.

In this we have the support of over sixty organisations as part of the Fair Treatment Coalition that we established and now counts amongst its members organisations representing legal, medical, health, community and church groups.

And of course, the Uniting Church, through its service arm Uniting, runs the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre at King Cross which has also taught us much about how to respond with compassion to those people who use drugs.

This proposal by the NSW Government is a step in the right direction. It should be encouraged and applauded; I hope people in NSW will give it their support and let their local MP know they are behind such a change.

Put simply, it will bring people nearer to help and hope. It will save lives.

This piece appeared in Guardian Australia on 7th December 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/07/we-will-save-lives-in-regional-australia-by-treating-drug-use-as-a-health-issue-not-a-criminal-one

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