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  Issue No 13 Official Organ of LaborNet 14 May 1999  





Really Caring

Interview with Peter Lewis

Sam Moait will be sending a message from the 48,000 nurses who she represents when she takes her seat at the Drug Summit


NSW Nurses Association secretary Sam Moait

What are the attitudes of your members to the whole drugs issue?

Firstly, I should say that the NSW Nurses Association does not have a formal drugs policy, we have a very democratic structure where our annual conference makes policy. Our members have raised and voted on resolutions to decriminalise marijuana and in July this year we will be formulating a policy on safe injecting rooms and such like.

But my members tell me they are concerned about drugs. They believe there is no one answer. They believe there should be many options for treatment. For people at some time in their drug addiction, they should be able to access methadone. They should be allowed to access naltrextone. They should be able to access a program helping absolute abstinence.

They also believe that at the moment, all options have been so reduced in NSW to the extent there are no options there for them now. As one drug and alcohol liaison clinical nurse consultant said to me the other day: "I get people coming in with $600 a day habits saying to me that they want to come off and I have to say to them: I have nowhere to send you -- not one methadone placement, not one in-house detox unit. Not one bed that I can send you to. So I have to send you out the door". So the hardest thing for them as the carer, the helper, the drug and alcohol liaison person is that they have no options for immediate care.

So that's a resource issue.

Absolutely. They also tell me that the requirements that have to be met for a doctor-run detox "clinic" are fairly relaxed. Any GP can set themselves up as a detox expert. My members say that's wrong and there should be more stringent controls on these private clinics which charge big bikkies. Who goes there? Usually schoolkids with parents with a bit of money who see that because there's no public sector programs available, they'll pop them into these clinics. They hope because it's not public sector that they may be able to protect their child's identity. So it's attractive to these wealthy people. My members say there are doubts about the quality of these programs. And on the other side of the coin, they say it's so hard now to get people onto a methadone program, that there are no places

There's also the nurses in general hospitals, accident and emergency, surgical wards and intensive care wards. I was out at a neo-natal intensive care unit recently because the nurses were concerned about security. The nurses there were telling me that because there are so many drug-addicted mothers who give birth prematurely, their babies are drug-effected. They're often on intravenous drips and in humidi-cribs. the nurses were having the experiences of fathers rushing in an aggressive state, grabbing the baby, dragging the baby off the drip and running out of the ward with them. Now the nurse won't try to step in here because the father is in a dangerous state. So they're asking for more security. That's just one example, but it's a tragic one.

The political orthodoxy is that drugs have now reached crisis point. is this what your members are telling you?

Yes. Members in both specialist fields and in general hospitals. But we've been saying it for decades. In 1981 I was part of a commission of inquiry for the Wran Government that was sent overseas to look at whether the legal provision of heroin for heroin addicts would have an effect on organised crime. We produced a report which made certain recommendations, most of which were never acted upon. So 20 years ago we were looking at similar questions, so the debate here has not moved quickly. I feel in NSW it's time to move on and not shut our minds like Fred Nile and some of the others have.

In Australia there's a strong demarcation between legal and illegal drugs. Is this an appropriate way of looking at drugs?

I believe and my members believe that it should be a health issue,. The primary consideration must be health whether the drug is legal or illegal. We believe that health should be the overdriving consideration I'm not saying there shouldn't be laws, but I am saying the laws should be reviewed and modernised. The debate is too focussed on whether a drug is legal and the law and order response, while the treatment is not given enough focus. The focus on the Wayside Chapel is important, because it shows the health need overriding the law and order issues. There should be some absolute focus with guts, passion and resources on harm minimisation. To us, that's the pivotal issue.

One area of confusion is the premise that all drugs are bad. Yet in America marijuana is used with cancer patients for pain minimisation. Do we need to look at the message we're sending out about drugs?

I think it starts with education. It must start in schools and at the moment drug and alcohol workers don't go into schools; it's left to the teachers (and there's not one active on-the-ground teacher at the Drug Summit). In many communities, you have people thinking alcohol abuse, bordering on addiction is OK; but that all illicit drugs are wrong. The problem is that kids go out and try a drug and have fun, then the message has no credibility. Our education needs to be more realistic. The line that it is wrong, just flies in the face of reality. I'm not endorsing drugs like amphetamines and ecstasy; but I'm a realist. Kids are going to try drugs and you've got to get some education that isn't based on fear or denial, but practical information about safety. I've wondered what I'd say if I had kids; I think I'd tell them about the drugs, I'd tell them about what they do to you, but I'd tell them: "be wary, don't step over the line". You can't run away from the fun, the joy, the happiness that you can get, but they need to set their own line. Now when we talk with kids about sex, we talk about precautions. Its the same with drugs, kids are going to try it; but they need to know of the danger.

So what do you hope to get out of the Summit?

I'm in the Training Needs working group. I'm hoping to get an agreement at our working group that from the Drug Summit we set up a semi-permanent committee where we will sit down and work with GPs, nurses, teachers and churches and work out what the training needs are and come up with a plan, which must be properly resourced as well. We want to train teachers, train generalist nurses to better understand the issues drug addicts face. Youth workers need training too because they're on the front line. I'm a realist and I don't think change will happen overnight, but I think it's a bloody good idea to have an open discussion about the whole issue. And I hope that the working groups will have the opportunity and resources to move in the right direction.

Finally, the $64,000 question, have you ever inhaled?

I won't try to do a Kerry Chikarovski. As a child of the sixties, I certainly took more than two puffs and so did my friends. I partook of all sorts of drugs and alcohol, as did everybody I knew -- it was the way of the world. I also saw the damage -- three of my friends died of heroin overdoses and I have friends from that era, who are still my friends, who are still suffering with addiction to drugs. One of the problems with any discussion with drugs is that people fear telling the truth when they are in a public position. People are frightened to tell the truth because they are frightened of the punitive attitude, which their own attitudes reinforce. That's the vicious cycle we have to break.


*    Visit the NSW Nurses Federation

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 13 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Really Caring
Sam Moait will be sending a message from the 48,000 nurses who she represents when she takes her seat at the Drug Summit
*  Unions: Kicking the Habit
The architect of a trade union drug and alcohol program has revealed his own battle with drugs motivated him to help other workers kick the habit.
*  History: Remembering BHP: Memory and Industrial Heritage
The announcement of the intended closure of BHP’s Newcastle steelworks heightened the awareness that industrial heritage is more than derelict sites of production.
*  Review: Ten Songs to Revolution
We ask Labor Council's resident music critic to name the ten songs that define the nineties.
*  International: Union Lifts Lid on Rio Tinto Shame File
The global campaign against mining giant Rio Tinto has been stepped up with a new report alleging abuses of human rights, environmental and safety standards.

»  Unions Warn Carr: Bosses Can’t Veto Second Wave
»  Labor Council Backs Harm Minimisation
»  Aquilina Urged to Talk as Students Offered Teaching Jobs
»  Cutting Through the Budget Crap
»  LHMU Demands Y2K Protection for Workers
»  Cops Eye Airport Beat
»  Spanish Workers Warned on Tax Agents
»  Unions to March on Journey of Healing on May 26
»  NSW Young Labor Turns 50!

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Why Wran's Right
»  London Calling

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