Lots of talk, but little progress on drug tragedies

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MARION McCONNELL OAM reflects on 25 years of grief, and still no real change in our approach to drug reform.

A LOT can happen in a quarter of a century; when I look back on the quarter century before my son died from a heroin overdose I think about his many achievements. 

Marion McConnell.

I remember his wry smile, his infectious chuckle and his quiet manner. A young man who through his school days was often top of his class, who gained a distinction in the Australasian Mathematics Competition every year of high school, who had a book of computer games published at the age of 16: who was in the top nine per cent in the ACT in the Year 12 Certificate; who had earned a degree in computer science just six months before he died and was working full-time.

In his later years I remember watching him through the kitchen window, sitting on the wooden bench in the sunshine, enjoying a cigarette, warming his hands around a cup of tea, reading the newspaper or trying to unscramble the cryptic crossword.

He was a young man with great potential who, for whatever reason, got caught up in illicit drug use. 

Unfortunately, I also remember that terrible night on the oval when he first overdosed on heroin. That was the night that I knew our drug laws were unjust and counter-productive. Instead of getting the support and treatment he and his family needed, we were confronted with the strong arm of the law. 

Fearing police hounding him to find out his dealer, he took a hurried holiday, away from the help he needed, and it was then that he overdosed and died alone.

That was a quarter of a century ago. Since then, I have dedicated much of my life trying to change the cruel and unnecessary laws that punish people for taking drugs while leaving them without adequate care or support.

My late husband, Brian, and I founded Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform in 1995. Since then there has been some successes but not nearly enough and extremely slow in coming. A Medically Supervised Injecting room which began in Sydney in 2001 has proven to be highly successful, but it took another 17 years for a second one to be established in Melbourne.

The ACT has seen trials of pill testing but these have been flatly rejected in NSW. To its credit the ACT Assembly recently took a cautious step when it legalised the possession and use of small amounts of cannabis. 

But what else have we seen? Endless research, conferences, parliamentary inquiries, development of dangerous synthetic drugs, continued alienation of drug users, more drug-related deaths, harsher penalties for drug users, more prisons and higher prison populations, increased mental illness, budget starved healthcare providers, budget-rich law enforcement. In other words, very little real progress.

I fear I will never see humane drug laws that are based in research and evidence. I fear I will not live to see people who have problematic drug use treated with justice, understanding and compassion. I fear I am unlikely to see the removal of criminal sanctions for drug use replaced with the more appropriate, non-judgemental health response. But my fears are entwined with dreams, dreams of hope, for we can never give up.

Those who mourn the loss of a loved one to drugs, or who have a family member using drugs, often feel isolated from the rest of society. Their grief often brings with it the added burden of stigma, guilt and shame.

But today (October 26) we will come together for the 25th time with others who understand and who stand beside us. And we hope this annual remembrance ceremony will bring others to a closer understanding of the need for more compassionate, rational and just approaches to illicit drug use – so that the suffering and grieving can come to an end.

Marion McConnell is also an active member of the Uniting Church where she is most interested in its social justice activities. She received an OAM in 2017 for her work in drug law reform.

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