Forum hears call for action on drugs, health and human rights

Each year, the United Nations celebrates two important, interconnected days on its international calendar. The 10th of December marks International Human Rights Day. In 2021, the theme is ‘Equality’. Two days later, on the 12th of December, the UN will celebrate Universal Health Coverage Day. On this day, we acknowledge the importance of strong, equitable health systems. In 2021, the theme is: ‘Leave no-one’s health behind’.

Of course, both of these themes, and these days, touch on issues of great importance to people who use drugs. People who use drugs have uneven access to healthcare, and experience human rights violations of various kinds. Stigma and discrimination remain major barriers to healthcare, with research consistently showing that people who use drugs experience high levels of stigma and discrimination, especially in healthcare settings, and that the effects of such stigma and discrimination are ongoing and often lifelong.

On 6th December 2021, the Yarra Drug Health Forum convened a special event to explore these issues, including the role of human rights, stigma and discrimination in the lives of people who use drugs, and questions around access to healthcare. GLaD program lead Kate Seear provided a keynote address. Kate began by reiterating matters discussed at the recent launch of the Global Drug Policy Index, where failings in Australia’s approach to both human rights and access to harm reduction and other healthcare services were emphasised. Kate then presented some findings from her Australian Research Council-funded Future Fellowship, which explores the intersections between human rights and drug policy. Kate observed that Australia’s approach to human rights is dominated by a unique parliamentary ‘rights scrutiny’ system, present in only four jurisdictions, and that it has done little prevent rights violations for people who use drugs, or to improve their access to healthcare.

Kate explained:

As we approach these two important international days, it’s critical that we reflect on the systems of rights protection we have in Australia. Rights protections are partial and flawed, and existing systems arguably authorise rights limitations, rather than prevent them. We need to have a conversation as a community about whether these mechanisms are good enough, and if not, what a more comprehensive system for promoting health and preserving life might look like.

The Forum also heard reflections from Dr Richard Di Natale, a former Commonwealth Senator, leader of the Australian Greens, and alcohol and drug doctor. Dr Di Natale argued that people who use drugs remain one of the most highly stigmatised and discriminated groups across society, and noted that this is ‘one of the few areas where [such prejudice] is still acceptable … as it is in almost no other area of public life’. Adam Willson, the Senior Drug Outreach Lawyer from the Fitzroy Legal Service, also spoke, highlighting the effects of prohibition on policing and enforcement, noting that these are costly exercises that fail to produce positive outcomes for individuals or the community.

The Forum then heard from community elder and leader of the Wotha Daborra Project Uncle Bobby Nicholls, who began with a reminder that the vast majority of recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had still not been implemented. He also emphasised the importance of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially when it comes to culturally appropriate alcohol and other drugs programs, and lamented the many barriers to accessing treatment for those who want it. The final speaker was Tricia Szirom, a sector leader and immediate past president of the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC). She began by noting the importance of spirituality and connection to country and says this has been ignored when it comes to alcohol and other drug policy. Tricia offered reflections from her many years in the sector and expressed frustration that Australia had gone backwards in its approach to drug policy.

The Forum concluded with a discussion of what needs to change. Participants spoke about the importance of a national Charter or Bill of Rights, more collective action and lobbying of politicians for reform, and the value of personal stories designed to normalise drug use, although it was also acknowledged that speaking candidly and openly presents a challenge in the context of prohibition.

You can find a video of the Forum here.