Drug law blowout predicted
March 2, 2011
DRUG and alcohol workers say the state government may have seriously underestimated how many Victorians will be sick enough to be detained for drug withdrawal treatment under a new law coming into effect this week.
Under the law, Victorians can start applying for a severe addict to be detained for two weeks of treatment at St Vincent's Hospital if that person's life is deemed to be at serious risk.
The act says detention can be applied for where it is ''necessary as a matter of urgency to save the person's life or prevent serious damage to the person's health; and to enhance the capacity of those persons to make decisions about their substance use and personal health, welfare and safety''.
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It says detention must be considered a last resort and that any limitations on human rights or interference with the dignity and self-respect of the person must be kept to a minimum.
Applications will be heard in the Magistrates Court with a doctor's assessment of the addict's health status to be considered.
The Minister for Mental Health and Community Services, Mary Wooldridge, said she supported the law, brought in by the Brumby government.
She said the government had allocated about $700,000 for about 10 people to be detained under the Severe Substance Dependence Treatment Act in its first year at St Vincent's, including its drug and alcohol treatment unit, Depaul House.
She said the government did not expect higher numbers of successful applications, but would monitor use of the act to determine future funding.
However, drug and alcohol workers said there was huge unmet need for treatment, which could lead to hundreds of applications.
Karenza Louis-Smith, the chief executive of Taskforce, a community group that cares for Victorians with addictions, said involuntary detention would appeal to many Victorian families.
"We are currently providing treatment to over 145 individuals and receive up to 3000 calls for help per year. Approximately 50 per cent of calls are from family members seeking last-resort assistance to involuntarily take their loved one for treatment,'' she said.
The executive officer of the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, Sam Biondo, said he expected to see more than 10 people being referred for treatment under the act because New South Wales had experienced dozens of successful applications under a similar law.
Mr Biondo was also concerned that St Vincent's Hospital was not a secure facility and that people could walk out.
''If someone can walk out onto the street and harm themselves, that is of considerable concern,'' he said.
An addiction medicine specialist at St Vincent's Hospital, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said the hospital's facilities were not locked, but said security staff and the police could be called if people were at risk of harm.
''It's not a perfect situation, but we think the risk of people absconding … is quite low,'' he said.
Dr Lloyd-Jones also agreed that numbers of applications could be much higher if the act was advertised, but said the criteria were quite difficult to meet. For example, he said a heroin user who occasionally overdosed would not be detained, whereas an alcoholic who had declined treatment frequently and was consistently attending emergency departments with serious injuries, would be detained.
Meghan Fitzgerald from the Fitzroy Legal Service said she was concerned about people's rights being violated and said the definition of severe substance dependence under the act could apply to a wide group.