TRUE OPINION: The number of prisoners in Australia’s jails convicted of illicit drug offences is rising by the month. Rarely heard however is the story of those affected by drug addiction, people who require treatment but instead receive incarceration. Murray Kinnane is the father of one such person.
I don’t have all the answers. What I do have however, is experience.
I wish I didn’t, but I do.
This is my story.
I’m 58-years old, and the father of three children, aged between 16 to 20. A boy and two girls.
Like all parents, I discussed drugs with them, the dangers and what to look out for. But you can only talk so much, only advise up to a point. The most important thing, for me and my wife, was showing trust. Trusting our children to make good choices, because after all they were great kids; kind and respectful to others, involved in their community, sports minded.
At the risk of sounding like The Waltons, we were a happy family, with a happy life, not perfect but perfectly content.
Then, one day it all changed.
My son was introduced to drugs without us knowing, basically keeping it a secret from us for about two years. We simply didn’t notice. After all, his appearance hadn’t changed and to all extents and purposes, he seemed to be the same, happy boy he’d always been.
Eventually however, I realized. I could see it in his eyes. They had changed, the sparkle was gone, replaced by a dead, black countenance which was much more about lifelessness than colour.
One thing led to another. After numerous heated discussions and disagreements, typified by him yelling and abusing us, the bar was incontrovertibly raised. His first serious run in with the law. He was 16 years old.
The Magistrate spoke to my boy and then, turning to me, asked this question: “What would you like me to do with your son today?”
Grateful for his understanding and seemingly sympathetic query, I answered as honestly as I could. I said that the behavior of my precious boy was out of control and that he needed some form of drug rehabilitation.
The magistrate hesitated and then said, not unkindly: “I’m sorry sir but I can’t do that. You can’t send someone to rehab against their will.”
I knew then, we were stuffed. Not just him. Not just us, my family. But society.
The court’s solution was to fine him and send him back to us, his parents. They knew he needed help. We did too. We sent him to counselors, doctors, psychiatrists and psychotherapists but nothing worked, he was still getting in trouble, still doing drugs.
But, by this time, his drug of choice was Methamphetamine. Otherwise known, as ‘ice’. Crystal methamphetamine is a stimulant drug, which speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and the body. It’s stronger, more addictive and therefore has more harmful side effects than the powder form of methamphetamine known as speed. Those who use it can quickly become addicted with users believed to be at a higher risk of becoming dependent on the drug when compared to other illicit substances. It is common for meth addicts to lose their ability to care for themselves or about their behaviour.
The chemical itself is corrosive and damaging and can cause inflammation of the heart and can severely damage the teeth, requiring full dentures as replacement. Over the long term, regular use of ice can damage or destroy dopamine receptors in the brain — sometimes to a point where the person using the drug no longer feels normal without having ice in their system.
In other words, it’s bad news. Pretty much the worst.
For obvious reasons, I became very friendly with the police in our area and they were all fantastic with my son and my family, professional and caring. But, they have a job to do. To respond to crime.
So, one time, I asked them: “How many callouts are you getting involving drugs?“
The answer was astounding. Between 80 to 90% of their call outs, they said, were due to methamphetamine. This shocked and intrigued me, so I did some research and found out that here in Western Australia, addicts are using up to $27 million dollars of meth per week.
At a street value of $50,000 per kilogram, that means 54kg of this pervasive substance is in our communities, being used by our young people, every single week of the year.
At one dose per week that’s 100,000 people.
At two doses, it’s 50,000 people.
At three doses, that’s a staggering 25,000 people.
I had a conversation with a woman I know a few days ago. She’s a kind, concerned individual, and she said that we should lock up users and dealers because drugs are illegal. So, I thought I’d take a look and see how that idea pans out for the tax paying public of Australia.
The current cost to the taxpayer for imprisonment is around $130,000 a year per prisoner. That’s 130,000 x 25,000 = $325,000,000 per year.
Which, in case you don’t know, comes out of our taxes. Even if we carried out this grand plan of locking people up, arresting our way out of the ice scourge, let’s look at the next lot of numbers.
In Australia, we have an approximate 40% recidivism rate of prisoners within 18 months of release. That equates to 1,860,000 people consistently moving through the prison system, simultaneously tying up support services like police, health, ambulance and Centrelink.
Factor in insurance costs, community services and so much more and the number starts to rise alarmingly.
Ok, I think you’re getting the picture. Let’s move on to the elephant in the room. Rehabilitation.
Crystal meth is a psychoactive substance that can create havoc for users and their families but are our current drug laws creating greater harm? (Image: Wiki Commons)
Very few people get rehabilitation in prison as the custodial system is not set up for the type of rehab which requires various forms of medical intervention. Most prisoners who enter prison as addicts come out as addicts; the whole process is pointless. We’re literally throwing money away.
If you were a business person, responsible for spending that sort of money in order to make a bad situation worse, would you consider it a good investment?
I know from experience that there are Government funded rehabs, but they have a waiting list of up to six months, have inadequate funding and are under staffed. There are private rehabs of course, and they can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per month, with no guarantees of success. Good luck finding the right one, even if you can afford it. They, too, have a waiting list of up to six months.
Of course, all these programs are voluntary. The addict can walk out anytime he or she finds it too hard.
And they will find it hard.
So, unless governments can come up with drug rehabilitation laws that can effectively connect with problematic alcohol and drug users, there is little chance of correcting the situation. The resources and support required simply aren’t there.
People say though, that a person has to want to go to rehab for it to work.
Perhaps that was true in the 1970s when the system was based around addiction to alcohol and heroin. A timeline of 28 days to three months to attempt to solve a problem like ice doesn’t stack up today.
With methamphetamine, case studies have shown it can actually cause changes in the brain, leading to possible permanent, irreversible damage.
You can’t address brain injuries in such a short time. Some professionals in the USA suggest it takes 6 to 24 months for the best results. It’s a long term, intensive process. It’s not just a question of waiting for the addict to become motivated, the pernicious damage that ice can do, means it isn’t going to happen.
Then there’s the war on drugs. It’s been going on for the last 50 years and guess what?
It’s a war we’re not winning.
The illicit drug trade in Australia is now worth over 9 billion dollars per year. We intercept between only 1% to 5% of the drugs coming into the country.
Yes, of course we should always go after the big suppliers but are we also missing the point by imprisoning the user? Surely, it’s time to look at what we do with problematic users and small-time dealers who are only selling to support their own habit.
Once a choice becomes a need, it becomes a health issue and we should treat it as one. We must look at creating a proper more modern drug and alcohol rehabilitation system. Even to the point of the decriminalisation of low-level drugs as has successfully occurred in countries like Portugal.
Imagine, by actually treating people with addiction, by seeing the issue as medical rather than criminal, how much money we could save. While also raising money through taxes on the production and sale of low-level drugs. Money that could be put back into the Health service to treat problematic drug and alcohol users.
Or, we can continue with the revolving door of the justice system that isn’t really helping anyone, costs money and, ultimately, lives.
The prison system is not the answer for drug users.
It’s not the answer for my beautiful son. It’s not the answer for my family.
It’s not the answer for you.
Don’t be afraid to ask the questions.
Drug addiction. A medical, or a criminal issue?
And, is it a problem we want to solve? Or simply live with?
Meanwhile, my son, is waiting, rattling, on remand, in connection with his latest law infraction. A heartbreaking scenario, which we, his loving family, simply cannot accept.
Except, that we must. We can’t have him in the house because he steals everything he can to feed his rampant addiction, so we have to watch, powerless, as he descends into a nightmare existence only marginally less horrific than that which we inhabit ourselves.
My son doesn’t need sympathy. He doesn’t need forbearance. He, and the thousands of others like him in Australia today, simply needs change.
Change in terms of policy, change in terms of strategy, change in terms of resources.
This is only my story.
But if you’re a parent, or even just a concerned citizen, you should be eternally grateful and more particularly – terror-stricken – that it doesn’t become yours.
Feature Photo: Murray Kinnane with his son in happier times (Image: Supplied)