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Not my family, and never my child. Tony Trimingham says that, like most people, he knew little about drug-taking and thought it wasn't something that would ever affect him. Then he discovered his son, Damien, was using heroin. He says if he hadn't been so ignorant and unprepared, and if social attitudes toward drug use had been different, Damien’s tragic and fatal overdose in 1997 might have been avoided.

Mr Trimingham, founder and Director of Family Drug Support in Sydney, Australia, is attending the Healthy Drug Law Symposium in Wellington. He told delegates today that communities need to wake up to drug issues and stop seeing them as purely a criminal matter.

“Most people are in denial about drugs and think addiction and overdoses are only things that could happen to bad people in other families. This attitude extends across society, increasing shame and stigma and adding to the nightmares of families who suddenly find themselves desperate and alone, struggling to get help.”

Damien Trimingham died within one kilometre of where the Kings Cross injecting room is now situated in Sydney.

“I'm not pro-drugs in any way,” says Trimingham, “but I'd rather my child was drug-dependent than dead, because while there’s life there’s hope. If Damien had not had to go off and hide to take drugs that night, perhaps he may not have died.”

He says the belief that the only way to deal with drugs is to punish addicts is simplistic and harmful, but that in most countries it still lies at the core of legislation and policy.

“Inevitably governments take a tough stand on drugs stance because that’s where the votes are, but prohibitionist and punitive policies have clearly failed. The idea – this hasn't ever worked so lets do more of it – needs to be replaced with a focus on helping addicts and their families get the help they need.”

New Zealand Drug Foundation Director, Ross Bell, says it’s understandable that people are fearful and want drug users dealt with firmly, but the reality is that people will continue to use, regardless of how strict our laws are.

“While we always want to reduce drug use, we have to realise that the fear of legal sanctions is a strong deterrent to seeking help. That means we miss out on opportunities to help people addicted to drugs give up or stay safe if they continue to use.

“We need to focus our efforts on reducing the harm from drugs and on identifying how drug misuse hurts individuals and society, and then respond with strategies to reduce those dangers in an environment of support and openness.”

Mr Bell says the first steps are to have frank and honest discussion of drugs and policy at all levels of society and to be willing to consider alternatives that have been shown to work.

“We know that people who use drugs who can access treatment have a greater chance of overcoming dependence and lower rates of relapse and recidivist crime. We need to bring our legislation and the way we think about drug use into line with what we have learned over the last few decades.”

The Misuse of Drugs Act is currently under review by the independent Law Commission and Mr Bell says this provides a rare opportunity for New Zealand to bring its drug law into the 21st century.

The invitation-only International Drug Policy Symposium – Through the Maze: Healthy Drug Law, is being held in Wellington as a precursor to a March meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna where the direction of global drug policy for the next 10 years will be set. Delegates will also discuss domestic issues, including the review of New Zealand’s 1975 Misuse of Drugs Act.

Tony Trimingham has received many accolades and awards including the National Rolleston Award in 2004 by the International Harm Reduction Association and in 2008 the Australian Prime Minister’s Award for excellence in reducing drug related harm. His book, Not my family, never my child, is a guide for families struggling to help support drug using loved ones.

Family Drug Support is a world leader in supporting families and the "Stepping Stones" model they utilise is recognised as a significant tool for family survival.

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