I’ve Seen What Happens When You Don’t Fund Drug Rehabs

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We called him Peaches. Not because of his cheery disposition, but because the obese dealer was always sucking on a peach whenever we saw him.

As soon as my mate Tony had begged, borrowed or stolen the fifty dollars — being the minimum price for the lowest weight of ice that was being dealt at street level at the time — he would jump on the phone to Peaches and make the journey to the usual meeting spot. Sitting in the gaming room at an Oxford Street pub, it never took long for Peaches to arrive. Even at four in the afternoon he would saunter in wearing his pyjamas with a half-eaten, saliva-covered peach in one hand.

The other always held a packet of cigarettes poorly concealing the meth. Such a paltry effort at remaining inconspicuous only made the whole affair that much more suspicious. Either way, the bar staff had seen it all before, and within a couple of seconds, the deal was done.

I usually took to waiting in the main bar area. Though at the time I was a heavy drug user myself I couldn’t stand dealers, seeing them as individuals who prayed on the misfortunes of their fellow men and women. And besides, sitting at the bar I could consume my favourite drug — alcohol.

This played out just before mobile phone ownership and social media participation was at the saturation point it is today. Had Peaches not answered his phone, we generally would have no trouble scoring from someone else, even if it did entail a bit of calling around using landlines and a couple of train trips across town.

Fast forward to the interconnected world today and had someone like Peaches been off the radar, the time it takes to find an alternative source would no doubt be dramatically shorter. A browse of the open Facebook pages of drug users finds regular updates of the profile holder searching for a fix, usually with nothing more than a post asking ‘Who’s holding?’ Sometimes, in less than a minute ‘I am bro, come over’ can be seen posted in reply. So if accessing drugs today is as easy as a status update, how easy it is to access help when one wants to give them up?

Jane, at sixteen, had already seen her family’s life torn apart by her use of ice. She had approached me in that very brief window of opportunity where the addict has both the insight and desire to do something about their addiction. I know just how fleeting this window can be because I had been there myself on many occasions. If effective steps weren’t implemented immediately, the self-talk that perpetuates addiction soon starts to drown out the one that is begging you to change.

I jumped on the phone to the only rehab that took adolescents. ‘Sure, we would love to help’ the intake worker on the end of the line said, ‘it definitely sounds like she has a serious problem. I’ll take her name and she can give us a call back in a month’s time. We should have some availability then.’

A month? In the life of an addict, particularly an adolescent one, the worker may have just as well told her to call back in twenty years. The only other alternative was to take her to one of the local hospitals and request admission to its attached psychiatric unit. Unless you were about to kill yourself or someone else, these were places to be avoided. As the admissions nurse said: ‘You don’t want to be in here, unless you have to. It’s not a nice place for a young girl.’

I explained the situation to Jane who reassured me, ‘I can do this, I can stick it out a month, I have to.’ Despite such willpower, she was out using again in a couple of days. I didn’t hear from her again.

Recently I spoke with Noffs Foundation CEO Matt Noffs who said even for his incredibly reputable rehabilitation services, the wait to access the service could often be up to two weeks.

The delay in accessing not only appropriate drug and alcohol support, but broader mental health services, boils down to one thing: underfunding. Critics against the allocation of scarce public funds towards mental health are right to say that to bring the system up to an effective level, one that could rapidly respond to the Janes of the world when they need it most, would be very costly. But such critics fail to acknowledge that when we are not providing rapid access to mental health treatment we default to providing far more costly responses to the problem. Largely this takes the form of law enforcement and emergency departments.

These solutions are band-aid at best, with law enforcement intervention often only serving to further disadvantage drug users rather than assist them on to the straight and narrow. Tony, for example, had spent several months in various prisons for offences relating to his drug use. Something which, if he wasn’t lucky enough to maintain while in prison, became the first priority for him upon release.

Admittedly, the long overdue shift from focusing on drug use as a health issue, rather than a justice one, is gaining more and more momentum. But as positive as this may be, even if we were to bring in measures such as wide-ranging decriminalisation, without a corresponding increase in health funding, negative outcomes among drug users will still be significant, even if slightly improved.

Simply put, if governments are genuinely serious about reducing the impact of drugs among their communities then rehabilitation services must be just as easy to access as drugs currently are from peach-eating street dealers, or from the beer taps at the local hotel.

James Fry’s debut memoir That Fry Boy, the personal story of a downward spiral into teenage delinquency and drug abuse, was released this year.

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James Fry is a Sydney based author and commentator. His debut memoir That Fry Boy was released in February 2015 through New Holland Publishers.

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