April 2015

Unearthing the underlying causes of drug abuse

Why do an estimated 1.3 million Australians use the drug ice? And why does Australia have one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the world, asks Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS

Recently the Federal Government announced a National Ice Taskforce as a way of combatting the destructive effects of the drug ice (crystal methamphetamine) on Australians. The effectiveness of such a strategy has been argued over recent days in our national media.

A recurring general response suggests that a law enforcement approach will be ineffective. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Tony Trimingham, CEO and founder of Family Drug Support, said “the time is right to explore new options. A whole-of-community approach is definitely going to be more effective than a total focus on law enforcement”. The new Minister for Police in New South Wales said he is committed to “dig down to the roots of alienation rather than merely dealing with the consequences”. And Matt Noffs, CEO of the Noffs Foundation, has called for an evidence-based approach.

It is heartening to hear these key people talking about “new options” and attending to “the roots of alienation” which can lie behind drug abuse. From my point of view, what seems to be missing from all the suggestions so far is a thorough look at what multiple causes can lead people to use ice or to abuse other drugs.

What is missing in people’s lives that leads them to desperation or to a quick high is varied and complex. Drug abuse, whatever that drug might be, is a challenging social issue. For me, a recent Sydney Morning Herald editorial goes closest to asking the right question: why is ice affecting poorer demographics and indigenous communities? But I also wonder, why do an estimated 1.3 million Australians (according to the Australian Crime Commission) use the drug ice? And why does our nation have one of the highest rates of drug abuse in the world?

Despair and a lack of hope can affect all of us at some time in our lives; but it can be more prevalent in communities who experience extreme disadvantage and among those at the margins of society. Alienation, depression, boredom, child abuse and neglect, loneliness, mental health issues, addictive personality, anger issues, bullying and volatility and genetic disposition, as well as isolation and environmental factors, are all identified as contributing to drug abuse. If one is to apply the economic adage that supply will follow demand, then in these situations of despair, there will be demand for some form of relief. We can expect the unscrupulous supply of remedies by drug dealers to capture the market.

What seems to be missing in many people’s lives is meaning, which brings hope and joyfulness to life. This lack of meaning is not confined to areas of social disadvantage. But where people place their hope in material possessions, social advancement or peer acceptance, there can be significant despair when these hopes are thwarted. Where there is a void of spiritual or inner meaning and resilience, there is little long-term confidence in one’s life journey or destiny.

So where and how do we as citizens, especially younger people, find true and lasting meaning in our lives? A secular world like ours here in Australia is more likely to offer the immediate fix, the instant feelings of pleasure, gratification and short-term confidence. When the fix wears off, nothingness and emptiness overwhelm, so another fix is sought.

These are very challenging questions for the whole of society. As an entire community I believe we need to dig very deep to attend to all the causes underlying the abuse of drugs.

Governments at all levels need to examine social and economic policies to address the continuing disadvantage in many communities and the contributing factors underlying drug abuse. Mental health issues, including depression, addictive personality and genetic disposition, call for a rethink about prevention and treatment strategies. The prevalence of domestic violence and household disturbances, as well as bullying, anger and volatility demand a rethink about social policy and educational programs. Religious institutions also need to review their place and responsibility in society. Only a comprehensive revision of social, health and education policies can provide a way forward for the National Ice Taskforce’s investigation.

The extent of our current world disorder is calling for a resurgence of justice and equity, compassion and mercy, rather than fear and greed that seems to permeate much of our macro thinking in Australia today. I wonder whether as a nation we can muster the resources and the willpower to overcome drug addiction if we are also not prepared to review dramatically the social and economic policies of our secular society.

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017. In 2013, Clare was awarded a Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission in recognition of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ work with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the victims of domestic violence.

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