24/05/2016 5:11 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST

The Rich Go To Rehab, The Poor Go To Jail

The cost of a treatment bed is far less than the cost of incarceration, which often is the alternative faced after months of addiction and waiting for treatment.

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The cost of a treatment bed is far less than the cost of incarceration, which often is the alternative faced after months of addiction and waiting for treatment.

Much has been written about the addiction problem that Australians are facing, including a special report that was completed by a team from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the National Ice Task Force (NITF) in late 2015 focused specifically on the ice addiction in Australia.

Both of these reports target the addiction of ice and the impact this has had on Australians and their communities. To be specific, the NITF report speaks to the use of ice and that conservative estimates are that more than 200,000 Australians used ice in 2014, a doubling from a decade earlier. While the ASPI report identified that more than 1.3 million Australians had reported using methamphetamines in their lifetime. Both were in agreement on the impact and that policing on its own will not reverse the trend this addictive drug is having on Australians.

There is little dispute as to the impact ice and other drugs has had on the country. In fact, a review of research shows that there are large amounts of "google" data available for the discerning reader. That is to say that the issue of addiction is one of the most challenging issues facing the country and governments have responded with multiple initiatives.

For the most part, the police and the criminal justice system has targeted the distribution networks in country and off-shore. The challenge is that the issue of addictions is really about the addict, not the dealer. While governments, mine in Canada and for the most part in Australia have focused energy and resources on stopping the distribution of illicit drugs, the successful impact has been suspect at best.

Not that arrests and legal interdiction isn't necessary -- it is, as I would argue that the need to combat organised crime as they prey on vulnerability is an important aspect of any drug interdiction model. The reality is that arrests, seizures and charges have gone up, year by year, but the long term impact has seen prices going down and access increasing. So unless we measure success in some perverse world where number of crimes committed is a measurement of success, there is a problem.

Police officers and leaders I speak to state clearly that there must be a multi-pronged approach to successfully counter the addiction issue. I spoke at a number of police leadership events and training events last year, and there is agreement that there must be a drug strategy that focuses on early access to treatment if we are to be successful in our attack on the illegal drug issue.

A 2007 research piece identified that Australia had a serious lack of addiction services and that the barriers were multiple, including actual accessibility of adequate treatment services. In 2015, similar research has identified a severe lack of residential treatment programs across the country.

During the ASPI research, the authors engaged treatment service providers in Tasmania, NSW, Queensland and Victoria and found that a serious lack of access was prevalent, with some states identifying that they had seven-month wait lists for residential treatment. In a speech to school teachers and administrators in Port Macquarie, one school executive told me that there were more than 50 students waiting for residential treatment, and that seven months was less than the average seen with their students.

The difficulty is that treatment is available, if you can afford it. In fact recent reports indicate that more and more Australians are leaving the country to attain drug treatment and that Western Australia is one of the highest users. One of the issues for residents is that private treatment can cost more than $30,000 however the alternative is to wait six months or longer, a death sentence for some. The reality is that if this was a family member of mine I would borrow the money, re-mortgage the house or seek help from family and friends to send my loved one to treatment. For a lot of people this is not a possibility so the waiting is all they have.

During that wait time families face all of the challenges that addicts face: crime, dysfunction, living on the streets, often selling their bodies for another hit of the drug they are craving. I know, because the parents of the addicted have told me what happens while waiting for treatment. I speak about this more than 75 times a year, in Canada and in Australia, and those engaged in the community with the problem agree -- they see it all too often as well.

The cost of a treatment bed is far less than the cost of incarceration, which often is the alternative faced after months of addiction and waiting for treatment. During the ASPI research, discussions with the publicly funded drug treatment facilities identified that annual person-bed costs were in the 32 to 35 thousand dollar range, while a 2015 Business Insider report identified that the average annual cost of a person-bed in a jail was more than $106,000. A conservative cost savings of more than $70,000 per person-bed, not including the other obvious positive aspects of health care managing a health issue.

What we face is delayed treatment for those in need, unless you can afford to go to private care. A strategy to get addicts into treatment will save money, reduce crime and build a healthier community.