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In a highly unusual move the Senior Counsel who presided over the recent NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ has penned a critical column in The Sydney Morning Herald (18 June 2020) urging the Berejiklian government to put politics aside and heed expert advice regarding the serious issues raised in the four-volume report issued earlier this year (as reported in GPSpeak Autumn 2020).

Commissioner Dan Howard SC agreed with commentators who pointed to the value of following expert advice on the coronavirus pandemic as well as remarks made by Premier Berejiklian herself in November 2018 when she announced the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘‘Ice’’: “I think, more and more, governments need to rely on experts, not on the politics but on the experts who provide us with the advice on what needs to happen,’’ she said.

The Commission conducted extensive hearings in metro and regional locations, including Lismore, and took numerous submissions. Drug experts, including ex-users, spoke of an epidemic of ‘ice’, the widespread misuse of other illicit drugs (and, notably, alcohol), and highlighted the lack of treatment and other support services in both the legal and health systems. The impact on Aboriginal communities around the state was a key focus.

After a much-criticised delay in releasing the report the government accepted some of the 108 recommendations, rejected others and left some awaiting comment at a later time. 

Six months has now passed, with no further responses forthcoming.

Among the rejections were the advice to open more medically supervised injecting centres, run needle and syringe programs in prisons, allow consumer substance testing (a.k.a. pill testing), notably at music festivals, and end the use of drug detection dogs. 

Commissioner Howard said accepting such recommendations would entail a “paradigm shift” by health services, law enforcement and other agencies, but would drastically advance the battle against ‘Ice’ and other amphetamine-type stimulants.

In his Herald op-ed column he made specific reference to the timelines of addressing the impact of drugs on Aboriginal communities, writing that, “Despite the risks posed by coronavirus, thousands have attended the nationwide Black Lives Matter protest marches, powerfully illustrating the fact Australians are no longer willing to accept political deafness and inaction in recognising, protecting and advancing the human rights and dignity of Indigenous Australians.”

Commissioner Howard added, “The commission also heard deeply moving insights from Aboriginal people throughout NSW about the harms that ice and other drugs continue to cause Indigenous Australians, and well-informed suggestions on ways to address this problem in their communities.

“The report acknowledges how colonisation and dispossession, and ongoing racism, family separations and intergenerational trauma endured by Indigenous Australians, have contributed significantly to the devastation that drugs have brought upon many of their communities.”

It was recommended that, ‘‘The NSW government partner with Aboriginal communities and ... community-controlled health services to urgently develop and significantly increase the availability of local specialist drug treatment services that are culturally respectful, culturally competent and culturally safe to meet the unique needs of Aboriginal people.’’

He is clearly disappointed by both the NSW government’s response to the report – “it perfunctorily rejected, without any meaningful analysis or discussion, five key recommendations” – as well as its tardiness: “Despite the urgency, there has been no further response. Since the arrival of COVID-19 has required the government’s full attention, it is unsurprising many other pressing matters have not been prioritised during the pandemic.

“However, as we move closer to bringing the pandemic under control, those other matters – including the ice inquiry’s detailed recommendations, and their relevance to Indigenous Australians – must be given proper attention, and lead to effective action.”