ALCOHOL ADVISORY COUNCIL OF NEW ZEALAND 'CUTTING EDGE' CONFERENCE

  • Roger Sowry
Social Services, Work and Income

Plaza International Hotel, Wakefield Street, Wellington

Bill Black, Ian McEwan, Dr Sellman, delegates:

Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you this morning.

Today I want to discuss the Government's National Drug Policy, the thinking behind it, and what we hope it will mean for people who work at the frontline of the drug and alcohol sector.

I also want to touch briefly on some of the pressure points that I have noticed in drug and alcohol policy since becoming the Minister, so that you know can see where my priorities and interest lie in the drug and alcohol field.

Firstly, the Government's National Drug Policy.

The idea of a national policy was first championed by the Prime Minister, Mrs Shipley, when she was Minister of Health, and included as one of the five strategic directions of the Government's 1994 National Mental Health Strategy.

The Ministry of Health was asked to develop the policy with the sector, and many of you would have been involved in the two rounds of public consultation undertaken in 1995 and 1996.

Because tobacco and alcohol are the drugs which cause the most harm to the most people in New Zealand, the Government felt it was important that a national policy on these two legal drugs was developed before a national policy on illicit and other drugs.

Part 1 of the policy, dealing with tobacco and alcohol, was released in mid-1996, and Part 2, covering illicit and other drugs, completed the national policy which was published just over a month ago. In simple terms the National Drug Policy sets out our overall goal, priorities and the results which government agencies will be aiming for during the next five years.

Our purpose is to minimise harm caused by drug use to both individuals and the community.

We can work to achieve this goal by preventing drug use as well as reducing the drug-related harm that is already occurring.

The policy emphasises the need for strong law enforcement to control the supply of drugs, credible messages about drug-related harm to reduce the demand for drugs, and effective health services to manage any drug problems which do occur.

The National Drug Policy is written primarily - but not exclusively - for people who work in the government sector to bring them together and tell them how to work together in a single direction to get there.

I am sure you?ll agree that this is an important step forward.

We are all aware that up until now, the lack of decision-making about drug issues within the whole sector has prevented the development of consistent strategies to minimise drug-related harm.

No one sector or agency has had overall responsibility for priority setting or co-ordination, and as a consequence, drug-related interventions by government agencies have not been strategically aligned and instead have been largely haphazard.

The National Drug Policy gives us a framework for decision-making within the whole sector about where the greatest drug-related harms are occurring, and identifying the best means to address those harms.

It's all very well having a plan but how will it actually work in practice?

The policy includes a very clear structure to implement, monitor and review.

The Government has immediately established a special committee of Cabinet Ministers to oversee the policy.

In fact we had our first meeting earlier this week which was very constructive.

We will meet twice a year to monitor the current programme on drug issues and decide which new drug-related initiatives should be recommended to the Government. This group of nine Ministers includes the Ministers of Health, Education, Youth Affairs and Maori Affairs, as well as the Ministers of Police, Customs, Justice, Corrections and Transport.

This group of Ministers will basically function as a single issue Cabinet Committee and has the potential to be a powerful force, because our members almost amount to a quorum of the full Cabinet - which is where funding for any new initiatives is decided.

At our first meeting we asked officials to develop an work programme for all Government agencies involved.

We are particularly keen to see scoping work done immediately on areas of concern such as the cannabis problem in the Far North and the East coast, and the possible influx of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Officials were asked to develop possible strategies in the areas of law enforcement, education and treatment.

Agencies outside Government have spoken to me about their desire to be involved process and I am keen to see this happen.

The Government is eager for the Drug Policy to be taken up and owned by both the sector and the Government to gain rapid momentum. And, as I?ve said, we are working through right now how best to involve the NGO sector in bringing the National Drug Policy to life, so 'watch this space'.

According to a rough estimate publicly-funded agencies spent around $207 million in 1997-98 on different types of drug-related interventions. Roughly 10 percent of this expenditure went on what could be called primary prevention programmes, while another 20 percent went towards treatment services.

he remaining 70 percent was spent on law enforcement work.

More broadly, though, the National Drug Policy identifies that the harm caused by drugs is a priority area for the Government.

Some agencies, like the Health Funding Authority, may respond to this by allocating more money into specific programmes which seek to prevent or reduce drug-related harm.

I personally hope that they do, but as always any major initiatives requiring new money will need to be considered by Cabinet in the normal way. I want to finish by offering you some personal observations after having visited a number of drug and alcohol services, in both New Zealand and Australia, during the last six months.

As the Associate Minister of Health with delegated responsibility for drug and alcohol policy, I have made a point of trying to get out into the sector and meet with people ?at the coalface? - those who work with people who have drug problems, and those who plan services for them.

I?ve detected a number of ?pressure points? where I feel we are not doing as well as we could, particularly a lack of specialist services for children and young people in some areas; and emerging illicit drug use trends, especially in Australia.

I think we could be doing much better in the provision of drug and alcohol assessment and treatment services for children and young people.

In my view, this should be seen as a core function of specialist mental health services, but I recognise that this is a difficult area.

For adults, the service provision has historically been separated, with distinct mental health services and distinct alcohol and drug services.

While assessment and treatment of alcohol and drug problems does require specific skills, the separation has resulted in poor co-ordination and a lack of integrated service. The ?Paki incident? is a tragic example of what can happen with this sort of buck-passing, and I am pleased that this area of ?dual diagnosis? is now starting to be addressed.

After years of neglect, we now have a great opportunity to improve mental health services for our children and young people. 'Mason money? has provided much-needed funding and a much greater focus on these services.

The expansion of the consultation-liaison role of specialist child and youth mental health services has also been a great step forward.

This is where mental health professionals establish strong relationships with other professional who work with young people such as school guidance counsellors, GPs, specialist education services and the Children, Young Persons and their Families Service, for which I am also responsible as Minister of Social Welfare.

This has resulted in these professionals increasing their skills in managing mild to moderate mental health problems (including alcohol and drug problems) and developing a much better idea of when to refer on to more specialist services.

I am also impressed with the level to which health, education and welfare sectors are working together - at long last - to provide more co-ordinated services, rather than the old'silo? approach which resulted in too many people falling through the gaps.

These Strengthening Families projects have also encouraged closer relationships across the sectors. I have personally been one of the drivers of this strategy wearing my Minister of Social Welfare and Associate Health Ministers hats.

I'm a great believer that this strategy will greatly improve the help that children and young people from Government agencies.

I am not saying that we've got it 'cracked'.

I want to see even more progress made in developing services for children and young people.

This population group is marked out for special attention in the National Drug Policy, and I expect this fact to be reflected by agencies like the Health Funding Authority.

The other pressure point for New Zealand is the emerging illicit drug use trends facing us from Australia.

EXAMPLE: Snow cones

New Zealand must be ready for this.

All the Police and customs officers in the world aren't going to stop people from using drugs, and we must face up to that.

Our emphasis to be on proper treatment services and drug education if we are to prevent our drug problems growing.

We all have a responsibility to do what we can to stop harmful drug use in our community. The National Drug Policy sets out how the Government intends to play its part over the next five years. Its publication, after two rounds of public consultation and months of refinement, represents a major advance in the way that we, as a country, attempt to address this problem.

It signals that we are serious about reducing drug-related harm, in partnership with the drug and alcohol sector.

It is time to turn this commitment into action, and I encourage all of you to get behind the National Drug Policy. In partnership we will make it a success.

Thank you very much for your attention.

You have an interesting programme ahead, and I wish you well for the remainder of your conference.