OPINION: The Law Commission issues its proposals for changes to liquor laws tomorrow. But alcohol abuse treatment is at risk, write Robert Steenhuisen and Chris Kalin.
New Zealand's drug and alcohol use statistics are truly alarming. Estimates are that 3.5 per cent of the population - that's 140,000 people - have serious alcohol or drug abuse problems. Alcohol Advisory Council figures suggest 29 per cent of the population regularly drinks enough to become highly intoxicated and therefore much more likely to harm our families or others.
Alcohol and drug abuse come at an enormous social cost in terms of violence, crime and injury. They are the sixth highest contributing factor to New Zealand's burden of disease and a massive drain on our justice and health systems.
In recent months, three main pieces of alcohol and drug legislation have been reviewed by the Law Commission: the Sale of Liquor Act, the Misuse of Drugs Act and the Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Act.
Reports from each have decried the significant shortage of alcohol and drug treatment services available to New Zealanders.
We know from a wealth of evidence that treatment works, especially if we get in early. We know we have a hard-working alcohol and drug treatment sector who are making a positive difference in the lives of the addicts they treat and their families.
But the bottom line is there just aren't enough of these treatment providers and services to meet growing demand.
Even though the Government has identified alcohol as one of its four priorities in its study of crime causes, it has recently allowed district health boards to divert funds traditionally ring-fenced for addiction treatment to meet budget constraints.
To not continue to fund, protect and increase the alcohol and drug treatment sector is short-sighted and based on the outmoded notion that the best way to control alcohol and drug abuse is to punish it..
No-one is arguing that addicts shouldn't be held responsible for their actions, but we now know that including treatment as part of the response to alcohol and drug addiction brings immeasurably better results than fines or imprisonment.
Cutting funding to the hard-working non-governmental organisations, the unsung heroes whose dedication in a trying field has saved many people and families from immeasurable misery, would be short-sighted and tragic; not just for the thousands of addicts who already have little hope of getting access to the limited resources available, but for the country.
In economic terms alone, every dollar we spend screening for people who could be helped by early intervention would save us $5 in social costs. That is the sickness, violence and crime resulting from addiction for which communities end up paying in all sorts of ways.
Every failure to provide intervention to an offender where alcohol or drugs have played a part in their crime is a missed opportunity. Every failure to make treatment available to anyone with an addiction problem accessing any social service is another wasted chance.
The fact that our drug legislation is under such extensive review is a sign that as a society we are re-evaluating our approach to alcohol and drug addiction. It is essential now that we don't return to the old way of thinking where addiction treatment takes a backseat to everything else.
Instead, the Government must listen to the recommendations of the Law Commission and focus more strongly on the need for better and more treatment.
The vision of the treatment sector is that everyone who needs it will have easy access to high-quality alcohol and drug treatment, and that everyone working in health, justice and social services maximises every opportunity to provide interventions for alcohol and drug misuse.
This will mean building the capacity of the treatment workforce and the range of services offered so that opportunities to intervene are no longer missed. It will mean co-ordinating those services and simplifying the way they are funded to remove red tape and unnecessary wait times.
Trying to save a little money now by cutting funding to frontline addiction treatment services is a tragic mistake for which we will all pay dearly in time to come.
Robert Steenhuisen, regional manager of Community Alcohol and Drug Services at Waitemata District Health Board, and Chris Kalin, chief executive of Auckland's Odyssey House, are the co-chairs of the National Committee for Addiction Treatment.