Doctors: Mandatory alcohol rehab laws are discriminating against indigenous Australians

Aboriginal elders from the Mutitjulu community near Alice Springs. Ian Waldie/Getty Images

There’s little evidence that the Northern Territory laws for mandatory alcohol rehabilitation are working, according to US and Australian experts writing in the Medical Journal of Australia.

And they say the Alcohol Mandatory Treatment Act 2013 is discriminatory against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, isn’t cost effective and only targets visible drinkers rather than looking at the problem as a whole.

The experts say it’s disturbing chronic drinkers who are publicly intoxicated are a target. This means indigenous Australians are more likely to fall foul of the scheme.

Homelessness rates among indigenous Australians are up to four times higher than the rest of Australia. And the practice among them of staying in the “long grass”, or living rough, is well documented.

The Northern Territory has alcohol consumption levels about 50% higher per head than the Australian average. Alcohol related deaths are 3.5 times the national rate.

Dr Fiona Lander from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and Professor Dennis Gray and Associate Professor Edward Wilkes from the National Drug Research Institute at Perth’s Curtin University, write that there is “little evidence of the scheme’s efficacy”.

The Alcohol Mandatory Treatment program costs about $27 million a year.

“The NT Government could adopt more cost-effective alternatives that would not involve the dubious application of a medical intervention to reduce public intoxication, with its concomitant legal and ethical issues,” the experts write.

Alternatives include restrictions on alcohol pricing and hours and days of sale for licensed premises, and capacity-building among primary health care organisations to manage alcohol dependence.

“Implementation of any or all of these interventions using the significant funding allocated to the AMT scheme could see enormous benefits flow to the NT population more broadly, rather than providing for the temporary and likely ineffective compulsory treatment of a small number of people,” the authors write.

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