Society has to recognize the real people and real problems behind drug addiction

A columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia says that society can learn lessons from the conviction of Harriet Wran, daughter of former New South Wales premier Neville Wran. In 2014, the young woman, an “Ice” addict joined two male companions in robbing a drug dealer who was murdered during the incident.

Harriet was charged with murder, but the court later altered the charges after Harriet’s companions confessed, making it clear that her role had been very minor, and that she had at no point expected the robbery to turn into a murder. Wran has been sentenced to two years in prison, much of which has already been served, as she was imprisoned from 2014 onwards.

Judge criticized for leniency

In mitigation of sentence, Justice Ian Harrison, struck out at the press for publishing details of Wran’s sex-life, her private letters and audios of phone calls from jail, all of which have nothing to do with the case itself and were not used in evidence. He feels that the distress this has caused should be taken into account during sentencing. The remorse she exhibited, her very minor role in the murder, her willingness to admit guilt and the low likelihood of her re-offending also contributed to her relatively short sentence.

But the single mitigating factor that the Sydney Morning Herald wants to highlight is that apart from being a drug addict, Wran also suffers from bipolar disorder. The judge commented that he believed she would have been unlikely to become a drug addict in the first place had she not suffered from psychiatric illness.

A real person with real problems best dealt with outside prison

In effect, the justice system has adopted a “pragmatic and compassionate” attitude, says The Herald, and one which many ordinary people should learn from. It is all too easy to dehumanize drug addicts, seeing them as lurid monsters instead of people in need of help.

However, Wran is among the lucky. Her family could afford good lawyers. The life she will return to on parole is filled with loving and supportive family members; the resources to provide counselling and treatment for the underlying cause of her addiction are available. As a result, she stands an excellent chance of full recovery.

Contrast highlighted by images of young man in “restraining chair”

young main in restraining chair

Photo: ABC Four Corners


Images of Dylan Voller, a young male Ice addict in a “restraining chair” bring to mind the nightmarish stories of the way people were treated in mental hospitals in centuries gone by. Voller also has his share of mental health issues. He was abused as a child, his sister Kirra reports, and grew up as an angry boy who perceived himself as being one of the “bad crowd”.

The chair incident was not an isolated one. The images relate to an assault against the youth by guards in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Most frightening of all, his first stint in “the Chair” occurred when he was just 11 years old. Does this youth have the same chance at reclaiming his life as Wran has? Sadly, he does not.

Now aged 18, he is serving out a sentence in an adult prison, and three of his guards are ex Don Dale employees. The furor created by the footage has seen the restraint chair banned from youth detention centers in Australia, but it is still in use in adult facilities. The young adult will be treated as a regular offender, and is not likely to receive therapy for the mental health issues that caused his addiction and descent into crime. Will he re-offend when he is eventually let out? Will he become a drug addict again? We can only hope that he will be able to get his life free from the cycle, but without outside help, and with new traumas to deal with, it seems unlikely.

Most addicts aren’t addicts “for fun”

It’s no fun being an addict. You live from fix to fix, and your only comfort is a chemical that gradually demands more and more from you in order to have the same effect it did at first. Very often, addicts have suffered from emotional traumas and mental health issues that led them to seek comfort in oblivion. It’s time that society recognizes this and provides the help that’s needed rather than the punishments that only aggravate the situation.

As we have seen, coming from an affluent family doesn’t protect addicts from the seedy side of addiction that can lead them into crime. Treatment is vital. If someone you love is an addict, you should get professional advice on how to deal with the situation. Simply confronting them will lead to nothing but defensiveness and may even aggravate the problem. What they need is help. Get advice on how to lead them to the point where they are ready to receive it.

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