Addiction is a problem that has plagued the indigenous population of Australia for some time. Alcohol abuse, in particular, has worked against the indigenous peoples’ struggle for a better life for decades now, and it is an addiction that they have never managed to escape. It is true that in recent history, alcohol addiction has become better recognised and better documented, however, it could be said that the issue is still not being given as much attention as it should in the nation’s political debates.
As if this torrid addiction wasn’t bad enough for a people that have been bludgeoned with every possible social, economic and humanitarian problem since their country was colonised over 100 years ago, another substance has now reared its head, and once again its causing problems. This time, it’s cannabis.
The use of marijuana among Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders has increased drastically over the past several decades, with as much as 16 percent of the indigenous population using the drug in the past year. This, combined with other substance abuses, including alcohol, has exacerbated the difficult social and economic challenges that the indigenous people already face. Once again they have fallen victim to a problem that was not created by them, but rather thrust upon them.
So are they getting the proper help and support that they deserve to help them battle their addictions, homelessness and low employment rates? Are they finally being provided with the opportunity to integrate into a society that has excluded them for the best part of one hundred years? The answer, quite simply, is no.
In fact the reality of the nation’s approach to the issue is quite a contrast to what any humanitarian would consider to be the ‘right’ or ‘human’ thing to do. Between 2000 and 2010 Australia increased the amount of indigenous people that it was imprisoning by an astronomical amount. The incarceration rate for indigenous men and woman grew by 35 and 22 percent, respectively. This sharply contrasts with the same stat for the non-indigenous population. Their rate increased by a more ‘normal’ 3.5 percent.
This has lead to a disproportionate amount of indigenous people in prison, compared to the overall population. Today Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders make up just 3 percent of the Australian population, but they make up a huge 28 percent of the prison population. Figures collected in 2008 showed that on average, 1 in 10 indigenous people face the likelihood of being sentenced to prison, this compares to 1 in 79 for the non-indigenous population.
The substance abuse problems that the indigenous people have developed clearly play a major role in these high rates of incarceration. The vast majority of indigenous prisoners said that they were under the influence of illicit drugs when they committed their crime. On top of this 11 percent of these prisoners are in prison after being found guilty of illicit drug offences. When looking at these figures, one has to wonder whether Australia’s tight regulations on drug control are a contributing factor.
If we take cannabis, one of the most popular drugs amongst indigenous people, it can clearly be seen that the punishments for use and possession are harsher in states where there are higher concentrations of indigenous people. In New South Wales, the state with the highest concentration of Native Australians, someone caught with just 15 grams of marijuana will be handed just two cautions before being imprisoned or hit with a high fine. In Queensland a person caught with 50 grams is given just one caution and in Western Australia someone caught with as little as 10 grams is also only allowed one caution. All of these cautions come with ‘some information’ on how to battle addiction, with only Queensland having a mandatory but brief intervention session.
These laws clearly lean towards punishment over rehabilitation and this is something that seems outdated in a country where rehabilitation is championed by politicians.
This somewhat gung-ho attitude by the governments, law enforcement agencies and courts shows an unwillingness to understand the situation within which indigenous people grow up and live, an unwillingness to recognise their substance abuse problem as a major factor in their crimes and an unwillingness to see them as a people in dire need of help and support in the fight to lift themselves from crushing poverty.
This may stem from the fact that a proper framework, along with top notch rehabilitation centres, to provide support for those with substance abuse problems would cost millions. It could also be that such a policy would not be supported by much of the non-indigenous population, who are all too often seen to be indifferent on the subject. It could even be that this is a deliberate ploy to keep the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in a position where they are without a voice and easily controlled. Whatever the reason, it is an entirely unacceptable state of affairs for an apparently progressive, developed country.
It is, of course, the case that the indigenous population must try to help themselves as well as receiving support, however without a proper framework to help them do this, and while laws still exist that punish them for their drug problems, as opposed to sympathising with them, this is simply not possible. Experts across the world have said time and again, that in order to lift a group of people from poverty they must be given as much aid as possible. They should not be persecuted and imprisoned for the substance abuse problems that they have developed, but should instead be entered into rehabilitation programs and even provided with home help. These ideals are a far cry from the current reality in Australia, but they are something that the country must seriously consider if it is to remain as a respected and fair nation on the world stage.
“This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” – James Baldwin