James* can still remember the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness that came with being a beneficiary with a drug dependency.
Now aged 50 and working in the drug treatment field, he spent most of his twenties using pills and injecting homebake, a type of heroin. He traces the beginning of his addiction to when he was 15 and a doctor gave him diet pills to help him lose weight. When these pills made it hard for him to sleep at night, the doctor gave him Valium, and his cycle of popping pills began.
By the time James was 19, he was using pills and alcohol and smoking marijuana. He tried injecting for the first time when a friend gave him a needle as a present. After trying it once, it became easier to do it again.
“I ended up knowing a whole lot of people using homebake. For a while, it was enjoyable, but when you get used to it, it doesn’t make you feel wasted anymore and you need it just to feel normal.”
For most of the decade when he was dependent on drugs, James was either receiving the sickness or unemployment benefit, but he remembers working for about 6 months for a company that hired out heavy machinery such as jackhammers and steam rollers. Somehow he managed to juggle his job and his need to ‘get on’ at least once a day. “It was pretty hard to keep up."
The feeling of hanging out, needing a fix of drugs, was like having the flu, with intense body aches and nausea. But most of the time, he managed to get a steady supply, using money he made selling prescription pills such as Rohypnol.
In 1988, after being arrested several times, he was close to receiving an 18-month prison sentence. But on the day of his court appearance, the judge changed his mind and offered James a reprieve. He was given the chance to get treatment at Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer Springs, and he jumped at the opportunity.
At first, he saw it purely as a way out of going to jail, and he was still using drugs right up until he arrived at the centre, including smoking cannabis in the car on the way there.
“I didn’t want to be there, I wasn’t even remotely interested, until they said, ‘No, you can’t stay, because you were supposed to have been off drugs for 2 weeks before you arrived,’ and when they said that, suddenly I wanted to be there.”
When he experienced being free of drugs, he realised there was an alternative to the lifestyle he had accepted as normal.
“For the first time in about 15 years, I went off everything. Before then, I wouldn’t have been without drugs since I was about 14. When I was in this place, detoxed, it was only then that the reality of my life hit home and I realised the impact the drugs had on me. If you’d asked me before, I would have said the using was how you dealt with life. I couldn’t see until I’d given it up that it was the drugs that were causing all of that crap.”
James’s habit had taken a toll on his health. When he stopped using, he realised several of his teeth had been slowly rotting, but he’d felt no pain because of the regular dose of opiates. Four had to be pulled out, and he needed several fillings in the others. He also contracted hepatitis C from dirty needles and had “the odd overdose”.
After his second attempt at treatment, James became clean and trained as a counsellor. In 1994, he started working at the same Queen Mary Hospital treatment centre where he was once a patient. He says he would never have made the decision voluntarily to give up drugs and seek treatment, and it was only when he had no choice but to stop that he realised how much they had taken over his life and his mind.
“I always believed in my head that it wasn’t that bad, even though my life had turned to shit in every way and I’d been in heaps of trouble with the law and been on remand. I don’t think anyone voluntarily goes into treatment. There’s always some sort of pressure, whether it’s legal pressure, relationship or work, there’s something that impels you. But how you get there isn’t always the biggest predictor of success. Some people can be incentivised into treatment, and others need a bit of a push.”
He supports the Welfare Working Group’s push to get more beneficiaries who need help into drug and alcohol treatment, but he fears the motivations behind the move would be financial rather than altruistic. James also doubts enough funding would be directed into the already over-stretched treatment sector to cope with an increase in referrals.
“I’m rapt that they’ve acknowledged the correlation between alcohol and drug dependence and the impact that has on a family’s ability to look after themselves, and prioritising treatment for that group is good because it shows they can see that connection and they recognise it’s a health problem rather than a moral or criminal one. My concern is how the government would do it.”
When he read the Welfare Working Group’s report, he felt the goal seemed to be to get people off benefits rather than helping them to successfully undergo treatment with all the support, quality resources and encouragement that required. He worries beneficiaries would be given just one chance to stop using drugs, and if that didn’t work, they could be subjected to sanctions and left stranded without welfare payments.
“There’s a lot of evidence around efficacy of treatment. It doesn’t always work first time or even second time for everybody. People respond to different treatment approaches, so if there’s only one option available and it doesn’t work for you, then you’ll be branded a failure and punished. And if your benefit is taken away for 10 weeks, it’s going to increase the chances you may do something illegal to feed your family, because you’ve got to live.”
James is also doubtful about the use of urine testing for drugs. He discovered while working in Hanmer that it was “notoriously unreliable”, particularly when detecting cannabis. Cannabinoids could remain present in a user’s system for several weeks after they smoked the drug. He says the drug that probably is likely to cause the most harm is alcohol, which is legal and widely used so unlikely to be tested for.
Overall, he fears steps targeting beneficiaries using drugs will compound their position at the bottom of the social heap.
“The whole experience of being a ‘druggie’ and being on a benefit is so dehumanising and debasing, and you are so powerless. I’ve never forgotten what that felt like, and I think this is another way of kicking people who are already down anyway. I think it’s about money primarily, as opposed to the wellbeing of families and particularly the kids who live in families where adults are abusing drugs. I just question the motives behind it.
“If you’re talking about getting families functioning again and back to work, you’ve got to be prepared to put in the effort, the support and the resources to allow them to do what they need to do to live without drugs, not just take it away from them.”
*James is not his real name.