Drug problems need a range of solutions

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Australian psychologists are calling for recognition of the complexity of drug problems, at both individual and community levels, and therefore the need for a range of research-based solutions, rather than the over-simple approaches often adopted.

A working group of the Australian Psychological Society, led by Associate Professor Debra Rickwood at the University of Canberra, conducted a wide review of current research into the causes, prevention and treatment of drug problems. Substance use problems impose a huge cost on Australia. Total economic costs have been estimated at $35 billion a year, with the greater part of that due to licit rather than illicit drugs, and costs due to tobacco use being much higher than those for other substances.

The review concluded that simple prohibition strategies, like the ‘war on drugs’, have not been found to reduce drug use in the long term; increased money spent on attempts to reduce the supply of illicit drugs has generally paralleled increased rather than decreased consumption: some knowledge-based drug education programs implemented in schools have been found to be associated with increased drug use, and generally antidrug programs employing fear tactics to try to prevent or change drug use have been found to be ineffective.

“Drug use, like all behaviour, results from interactions amongst biological, psychological and social factors,” said Rickwood. “To understand why some people use drugs in harmful ways and then to prevent or reduce that harmful use, we need to identify all of the causes and address as many as possible. There are treatment programs that attempt to do this, with some success, but they require specially trained health professionals and adequate resources. Even then, it is acknowledged that many drug problems are difficult to treat successfully.”

One of the major reasons for this is that substance abuse is often associated with mental health problems. People with mental illness and mental health problems often use drugs, both licit and illicit, to try to reduce their psychological pain. Research studies have found from 50% to 90% of people with a mental disorder also had a substance use problem. While some people with a substance use problem solve it without any professional help at all, others need comprehensive help to address the complexity of their individual problems.

“Australia’s national drug strategy is based on the principle of harm minimisation, but that is sometimes misinterpreted as only involving attempts to reduce drug use. Harm minimisation should provide a range of options, for individuals and communities, aimed at achieving supply reduction, demand reduction, and harm reduction. The main conclusions from this review are that we need a range of treatment and prevention programs, based on solid research, aimed at the different groups of actual and potential drug users. We should be developing a coherent set of strategies,” said Rickwood.

Such a major issue calls for a considered and maintained response and we hope this review will provide a solid basis for that.”

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For a copy of the Review or to arrange an interview with Assoc Prof Rickwood, contact:

Elaine Grant
Communications Manager
Australian Psychological Society
03 8662 3300 or 0412 683 068
e.grant@psychology.org.au