HealthNews

Uniting’s ‘Half a Million Steps’ points Parliament toward sensible drug reform

A poignant documentary film will premiere in Sydney and around NSW this month (June 2019). It points to the need for compassionate drug law and policy reform to build treatment options and save lives.

End of the road: Uniting Church in Australia NSW and ACT Moderator the Rev. Simon Hansford hands the baton in Macquarie Street to cross-party MPs Shayne Mallard (Liberal), Jo Haylen (ALP), Cate Faehrmann (Greens) and Alex Greenwich (Independent). Photo:Uniting

The film, Half a Million Steps, follows the journey of a hundred people on a “Long Walk to Treatment” – carrying a baton almost 400 kilometres from Dubbo to Sydney in October 2018.

Inside the baton is a heartfelt open message to the Premier from Uniting Church in Australia NSW and ACT Moderator the Rev. Simon Hansford – calling on the NSW government to take personal drug use out of the realm of criminality and make effective treatment accessible to people struggling with problematic drug use.

The Long Walk is led out by Dubbo-based mum Shantell, who faced a journey of 400 kilometres – “half a million steps” – to find specialist drug rehabilitation treatment in Sydney. “It’s only a few steps to get drugs in Dubbo,” she says, “but very hard to get treatment.”

The film features walkers on various stages of the journey – including people who use drugs, individuals in recovery and their families, medical and treatment experts, enforcement and legal professionals and others with deep experience of the issue. They speak powerfully of the impact of addiction on people and their families and on the critical need for compassion and accessible treatment options.

The documentary was made by Uniting as part of its “Fair Treatment” campaign for reform, which is supported by more than 50 other organisations including legal and medical bodies, unions, service providers and community groups.

Uniting, the advocacy and service agency of the Uniting Church, launched the campaign last year seeking to increase treatment and harm prevention funding and to decriminalise personal use of small amounts of drugs. The campaign aims to provide people who use drugs with a health response rather than having them put through the criminal justice system.

Beautifully filmed among the stunning landscapes of central NSW, across the Blue Mountains and into Greater Sydney, the documentary was directed by Dominic Streeter and narrated by Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre at Kings Cross.

Dr Jauncey outlines how 26 other countries have adopted a decriminalisation and treatment-based approach which has slashed drug death rates and problematic use.

She points out that current NSW policy is disproportionately jailing women, and also Aboriginal people – whose imprisonment rate, mostly for personal drug use offences, is more than 13 times higher than the rest of the population.

Other walkers expressing their support for a shift from criminal pursuit to a health-based approach focussing on suitable treatment include former Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer AO and former State Prosecutor Nicholas Cowdery AM. They’re agreed the “war on drugs” has been a costly and destructive failure. Says Cowdery: “It’s crazy. The law needs to be changed.”

Whether and how it will be changed is now up to the newly-elected NSW Parliament. Supporters of reform are strongly urging an expert summit to determine the shape of a new drug policy aimed at saving lives and providing better access to treatment.

Such a shift may have begun with reconsideration of pill testing at festivals but needs to go much further.

A cross-party MPs group including Liberal, Labor, Green and independent MPs will take up the issue in Parliament. Says Independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich, seen at the end of the film carrying the baton into the House: “We need to get on with the job, and … shift our focus away from locking people up to actually saving lives and helping people live a full and thorough life.”

Half a Million Steps will premiere in Sydney on June 13 at the Palace Chauvel Cinema, Paddington. It will then appear at these Dendy Cinemas: Newtown (Saturday June 22 at 2.30pm); Opera Quays (Thursday June 27 at 6.30pm; Newtown (Wednesday July 3 at 6.30pm and Friday July 12 at 6.30pm). Contact these cinemas for tickets.

To register to host or attend a screening, go to www.fairtreatment.org/walk/ where you can also see the full list of campaign partner organisations.

Stafford Sanders, Uniting Advocacy team. For more information, contact Bronwyn Seneque at bseneque@uniting.org.

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