David Dalton manages the Maintenance to Abstinence program at The Buttery.
David Dalton manages the Maintenance to Abstinence program at The Buttery. Marc Stapelberg

Calls for 'urgent' funds, health approach to addiction

DECIDING to tackle an addiction can be a huge step.

But growing waiting lists for rehabilitation services across the region can hamper the efforts of many who seek help.

For those facing criminal charges connected with substance use, waiting times can mean they're held in custody rather than being afforded rehab opportunities.

Key stakeholders in the Northern Rivers rehab and justice sectors have criticised the State Government's response to a parliamentary inquiry into the provision of drug rehab services in regional, rural and remote NSW.

They claim there's been a pointed lack of financial commitment since, despite recommendations which included calls for an urgent increase in funding to tackle alcohol and other drug addiction.

A costly system

IT'S costing more than $70,000 a day to keep Northern Rivers residents in custody.

Every week, lawyers apply for defendants with substance use disorder to be granted bail to access rehabilitation.

But it's common for there to be no rehab beds available, and they face an impossible situation.

Keeping one person in prison for a year will draw about $90,000 from the public purse, not including the money that goes into publicly-funded legal aid.

The same time in residential rehab at a facility like The Buttery would draw just $23,000 of government funding.

In her inaugural speech before NSW Parliament, Labor member for Lismore Janelle Saffin referred to the issue.

Ms Saffin told The Northern Star there was an "absence of services" and that she could be guided by authorities on the matter in lobbying for more rehabilitation resources.

She said such authorities included those involved in a Australia 21 round table report in which former commissioner of both the Australian Federal Police and Northern Territory Police, Mick Palmer, said the "user end of the illicit drug marketplace" should be dealt with "primarily as a social and health issue".

"The more people we can rehabilitate, the better it is for everyone," Ms Saffin said.

"If you look at the economics of... it's a better investment for all of us."

Ms Saffin said the inquiry's recommendations were "clear" and while the State Government had accepted many of them in principle, more economic commitment was needed.

"It's my job to follow up in that," she said.

Long wait for help


DAVID Dalton was a resident of The Buttery some 22 years ago and is familiar with the grips of addiction.

He now manages the Binna Burra facility's Management to Abstinence program, which weans residents off the opioid substitute buprenorphine.

He said the waiting list for this successful program was now more than double its entire capacity; 15 people are waiting for a place on the seven-bed course.

CEO Leone Crayden said their therapeutic community had a six-month wait for men, and four months for women.

Based on current demand, the facility could double its capacity of rehab beds and outreach programs and still have a waiting list.

"That's too long to wait for rehab," she said.

Ms Crayden said the needs of the Northern Rivers were overlooked by the State Government's response to last year's inquiry and feared the continued stigmatisation of people with substance use disorder had likely impacted any drive to better fund rehab services.

But she and Mr Dalton hoped this could change.

"I see people come in and their lives are turned around from a degree of hopelessness, helplessness," Mr Dalton said.

"Then they go forward and lead productive lives.

"It's a condition, it's a problem ...that can be addressed."

Calls for change

THE Lismore Social Justice and Crime Prevention Committee will next month ask Lismore City Council to forward a report and recommendations to the relevant state and federal bodies.

The committee has overwhelmingly supported recommendations from the parliamentary inquiry's report, including that the State Government "significantly increase funding for drug and alcohol-related health services", implement a population-based planning tool for rehab services, and establish a central register for available rehab services across NSW as a matter of urgency.

They have also called for "culturally and gender appropriate" residential rehab services for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women and children, detox services for young people, the expansion of the Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment (MERIT) program to include alcohol addiction, the return of the Life on Track program, a Koori court and Drug Court.

Help for people with dual diagnoses of substance use disorder and mental health conditions is also on their wish list.

The committee's chair, councillor and lawyer Eddie Lloyd, said substance use disorder should be treated as it's classified: as a health, rather than criminal, issue.

The fact drug and alcohol use is often interlinked with criminal behaviour can complicate things, but Ms Lloyd said there were grounds for the "more therapeutic" environment of a Drug Court in Lismore.

"The difference between a drug court and a normal court is therapeutic jurisprudence," Ms Lloyd said.

"The judges at drug courts really understand relapse is a common feature of drug recovery."

This wouldn't require a new brick-and-mortar facility, she said, but a new approach to reduce days spent in custody for non-violent offenders.

The State Government had given in-principle support to a regional Drug Court trial in Dubbo that could join the existing program in Sydney.

Justice reinvestment

THE committee believes a Justice Reinvestment initiative like the one in place in Bourke could help to keep many out of custody.

This program has so far included tackling statistics on drivers licence-related and AVO breach offences through proactive prevention.

Ms Lloyd said she was confident the committee would "have enough knowledge and expertise and enough motivation the get a justice reinvestment initiative off the ground".

"If we get something off the ground, we might be able to get some funding from the government if they see that it's successful," she said.

"Justice reinvestment is about moving money (to initiatives) that help to reduce recidivism.

"We would love to have the opportunity to get one of those programs off the ground."

Ms Lloyd said such a program could have a strong impact on the "very disturbing" rate of Aboriginal incarceration in the region.

"Across the state there's been a 25 per cent increase in Aboriginal defendants in custody," she said.

"In our region it's been reported to be 50 per cent more.

"It's embarrassing. It's a shameful, disgraceful statistic."

New inquiry

MEMBERS of the Lismore Social Justice and Crime Prevention Committee will be among those to give evidence at the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug 'Ice' when it visits Lismore for two hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

This inquiry will specifically consider the nature, prevalence and impact of crystal methamphetamine and other amphetamine-type stimulants and the adequacy of existing measures to target the drug in NSW and the ACT.

Need help? Contact the Alcohol and Other Drugs Information Service on 1800250015 or Family Drug Support on 1300368186 24 hours a day.

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