Influential Leadership Conference Without Majority

On Friday 11/3/2016, The Change Agent Network (CAN) hosted the ‘Influential Leadership Conference without Majority’.

CAN was created to foster better cooperation within the Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) sector. CAN aims to create discussion around how to best to use the evidence, experience and knowledge across the sector to continue developing best practice. Members of SSDP Australia, Ash Blackwell and Chloe Span attended to represent SSDP and learn more about the challenges in delivering services and advocating for people who use drugs, within the AOD sector.

CAN representatives, Moses Abbatangelo of Cohealth and Cath Peake of Barwon Health opened the event, sharing the importance of remaining client-focused. Emphasising that many of their clients are people in crisis who have complex problems, often including trauma in addition to problems with substance use. In 2016, CAN intends to implement Trauma Informed Care in which the needs of their consumers are seen within the context of the experience of the person seeking treatment and any aspects that might inadvertently cause anxiety. Trauma Focused Care could include counselling that attempts to deal with underlying problems that may be contributing to a substance abuse problem. Trauma Informed Care creates a context that acknowledges the trauma and the ways that it might relate to other behaviours and attempts to create an environment that fosters a feeling of safety.

Leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale also gave a presentation that included his perspective of both working as an AOD clinician and a policy maker. He spoke of his experience advocating for serious political change in this area, highlighting how even some of the negative press he received allowed an opportunity to open up the discussion. He urged people within the sector to be courageous and speak out publicly in support of policies that they know work. 

Among many interesting points relating to the national debate on drug law reform, Senator Di Natale highlighted the need to push for drug checking as a contemporary issue capable of saving lives, and improving the health of people who use drugs. In doing so, he posited that Australia has the opportunity to reclaim some of its reputation as an international pioneer of harm reduction programs. The Senator also explored the notion of implementing future decriminalisation frameworks as that of Portugal, shifting away from funding police-based initiatives, and into that of drug treatment.

An expert panel from the AOD sector then presented a discussion panel and Q&A with the following speakers: Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens; Dr. Yvonne Bonomo, Medical Head of the Women’s Alcohol and Drug Service (WADS); Stephen Bright, Psychologist at Monash Health; Andrew Bruun, acting Executive CEO of the Youth Support and Advocacy Service (YSAS); Greg Denham, Executive Officer of Yarra Drug and Health Forum; and Michael Miller, Project Officer of Bridging the Divide of Family Drug Support.

Questions to the panel revolved around how prohibitionist policies do not fail, but actively inflict more risk and adverse consequences on individual users. The discussion progressed into the ability of law enforcement initiatives to push down on vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, members of culturally and linguistically diverse communities and others of low socioeconomic backgrounds. It was also highlighted by Greg Denham and others the problem of continuing to create community expectation that the police can solve problems of drug use in society. Handing money to police with the expectation that drug use will disappear sets the police an impossible task and sets up communities for disappointment.

Panellists emphasised the importance of hearing the voices of people who use drugs in challenging the status quo, yet they are almost entirely absent from the current policy dialogue. One audience member thought it unreasonable to expect the consumers of AOD services to lobby for better drug policies as a means of broadening debate. This person continued to explain that advocacy needs to come from those who have personal experience with illicit drug use and the capacity to do so as a healthy, self-sufficient member of their community. Dr Steven Bright echoed this view expressing the need for stories involving positive experiences of drug use in clinical and recreational settings to be a part of the discussion.

Ultimately the forum created space to discuss the ways people who work in rehab, detox and withdrawal units can lead by example, practice better client-focused approaches and speak out on behalf of their consumers. The conference closed with a positive message delivered by Yvonne Bonomo that change more broadly is possible. It is active in the AOD sector and in politics. Individual action and responsibility adds up to a collective shift in opinion and public discourse.

For more information about the CAN Conference please see this short promotional video available on youtube.

SSDP Executives – Ash Blackwell and Chloe Span

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