GUEST EDITORIAL: IN THE BUSH
My journey began in the 1970s. From an early age, I was living a life of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll on Sydney's inner city streets. Drugs were everywhere and they were cheap. However, drug education and services were nonexistent. There were no needle exchanges. Glass fits with steel tips cost $50 (the same as a half gram of heroin) and were hard to get. Blood borne viruses were rife but not many people knew or cared about them. Practically everyone shared their needles.
For me, a growing drug habit came with a life of crime. I stole to maintain my habit, leading to many years within the NSW prison system as well as rehabs. By my late 40s, the physical and mental challenges were taking their toll.
I decided my life had to change. I stopped using heroin and cannabis "cold turkey". I wanted a university education and got support through a government program for indigenous people.
I went on to use my first hand experience in my career and as a volunteer. I served on the boards of Hepatitis NSW and Hepatitis QLD; worked for Aboriginal Legal Services and Land Councils; and advised on drug use in schools and at a police academy.
I have lived in regional areas for the last 20 years. It seems to me that although city dwellers understand drug issues better, not much has changed in rural and regional areas. Stigma results in denial - “there are no drugs in our community” - despite an increase in drug use in country areas.
Trying to get drug programs in rural areas is extremely difficult. I remember 10 years ago the independent MP of a regional electorate in Queensland set up a funded needle exchange. Run by volunteers, it was effective as it offered privacy and respect. This service only lasted a few months before the MP lost her seat at the next election. The new MP ended the programme and returned the $50,000 funding claiming the service wasn't necessary as the town didn’t have a drug problem! Providing funding to drug programs isn’t a “vote winner”. It's not easy to prevent blood borne viruses when there is denial that injecting equipment is needed.
There is irony in this denial because in the country everyone knows who is taking drugs and they are discriminated against. Very few people will give a drug user a chance; even fewer want to give you a job. There is no support from any direction for rural people who take drugs.
Drug use has increased in country areas along with rising unemployment. There is little community support for young people; most rural towns don’t even have an activities club for kids. Boredom and lack of hope for the future are major factors.
In addition, we have people who use drugs who make a sea or tree change from the city hoping to reduce their use. However, they need support. It is not as easy as simply moving house; they need to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that there is a way out.
Sadly, the level of assistance for problematic drug use has not kept up with demand, particularly in rural areas.
Rural users are put off hep C treatment due to wait times. I had to see a series of different health care providers before I was accepted for the new hep C treatment. It's clear we need more outreach services, electronic appointments and a streamlined testing system.
Distance is also an obstacle for users in rural areas; we need reliable, affordable public transport. I have a car and it's still a two hour round trip for me to get to my closest hep C treatment facility.
It makes sense that GPs can prescribe hep C treatments, however many are intimidated by this complex virus, with its genotypes, various treatment regimes and the alcohol and drug connection. There should be information packages and offers of support going to GPs routinely.
People who use drugs and people who are looking to change or stop their drug use both need regular support. I would like to see easier access to injecting equipment, drug treatment and hepatitis C treatment. In addition, addressing stigma must be a priority. Using drugs may not be everyone's idea of a good life choice, but ignoring the issue is not the solution.
From that kid on the streets of Sydney to the young man in jail to the older man living in the country, I am now living a life after drugs. I am a leading member of the community with a university education and the ability to make change happen. I have a new life and family with a beautiful 2 year old baby boy. My health is in order, including treatment for hep C. If 20 years ago anyone had told me this would be me, I would have said they were dreaming. I want all people who use drugs to have the belief in themselves to live the life they want to live. For that to happen, the infrastructure that supports them must grow and the stigma that tears them down must die.