By MICHAEL HITCH
The Uniting Church and its service arm, Uniting, took another step towards reforming drug laws after screening their documentary film, Half A Million Steps, in Paddington recently. The film documents the ‘Long Walk to Treatment’ – a group trek from Dubbo in central-west NSW to Parliament House in Sydney.
The Long Walk started on October 19 last year and took 15 days to complete. Over 100 walkers participated to highlight a shortfall in Australia’s drug and alcohol treatment programs, by representing the average travel distance for a person in regional New South Wales to reach help.
The premiere of the documentary was held last week at the Chauvel Cinema with guest speakers, including the Uniting NSW/ACT Moderator, Rev. Simon Hansford, and the Uniting NSW/ACT Executive Director, Tracey Burton, who introduced the screening.
“It [the documentary] chronicles the walk from Dubbo to Sydney, to really highlight the postcode lottery that is access to treatment services in New South Wales at the moment,” said Burton.
“One of the numerous aims of the Fair Treatment Campaign is to reduce the cycle, fear and shame for people who are using drugs.
The Fair Treatment Campaign
“The Fair Treatment Campaign arose out of the church. It was a world-first, the church deciding to support the decriminalisation and possession of small amounts of all drugs – and also to advocate for improved access to treatment services, especially in rural and regional areas.
“I’m so proud to be part of an organisation that’s not scared to take on a big issue like drug law reform.”
Uniting launched the Fair Treatment Campaign in October last year, which aims to “reform drug policy based around facts and not fear,” with drug-dependency being treated as a health issue instead of a criminal one.
Uniting was prompted by drug-induced deaths reaching their highest in 20 years.
Sir Richard Branson, founder and CEO of the Virgin Group attended last year’s launch and spoke alongside the Director of the Kings Cross-located Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MISC), Dr Marianne Jauncey, and the Executive Secretary of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GDCP), Dr Khalid Tinasti.
Sir Branson said that the War on Drugs had completely failed at preventing drug use, creating further social devastation as a result.
“The war on drugs has been going on now for nearly 60 years. As an entrepreneurial businessman, if something had failed so abysmally … we would’ve closed it down 59 years ago,” he said.
“Sadly, politicians continue to wage this war which has been an abject failure and caused untold misery throughout the world. Drugs can be an illness for some people and they need to be helped.
“People have been executed; people have been locked up. People who have drug problems, instead of being helped, have been threatened with prison, or they die from their drug problems.”
Special guests at this year’s event included members of parliament and MP’s including Penny Sharpe, Alex Greenwich and Cate Faehrmann. Reverend Hansford spoke about his experiences seeing drug use in Dubbo and that the ministries connection to the local community had helped him understand the necessity of the campaign.
“My exposure, when I was growing up, to drug-use was very small, I was very fortunate in that way. When I moved to Dubbo, things were quite different,” he said.
It’s not easy to get treatment
Hansford continued, “Drugs were readily available in Dubbo. But it’s not easy to get treatment, especially when people want it – and Sydney is a long way away when all your life and resources are in Dubbo.
“The ministry in Dubbo is about the community and not just the church, my time there confirmed why I’m a minister. My belief is that every human being has an inherent value, has an equal worth. My faith places me squarely with those who are struggling, with those who are told they have no place and no worth and no future.”
“That’s why I support the Fair Treatment Campaign and its goals. A compassionate response to problematic drug use, not a criminal justice response. Every human being deserves it no matter where they come from – Sydney’s flashiest suburbs, the east-side of Dubbo or Kings Cross.”
The 90-minute documentary charts the route of a baton containing an open-letter to the NSW Premier, Gladys Berijiklian, and focusses on single mother, Shantell Irwin – a methamphetamine user who has to make this exact journey to find suitable treatment for her drug use.
“It takes only a few steps to get drugs in Dubbo, but I have to travel 400kms to Sydney to get treatment,” said Irwin. “I was broken, and I dealt with it through drugs.”
Dr Marianne Jauncey narrates the Journey throughout the documentary, providing insight for the audience about the urgency of reforming laws and providing treatment for rural communities.
“We’re failing Shantell and we’re failing the 200,000 Shantell’s around this country that cannot get to treatment,” she said.