AFL summit sends wrong message on illicit drug use

AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou (centre) has flagged a rise in positive test results, but changes to drug policies won’t necessarily help. AAP/Joe Castro

The AFL’s approach to illicit drugs was championed as a world leader of drugs-in-sport policy when it was implemented in 2005. It was fair, humane and had been effective in reducing match day and out-of-season positive test numbers, through better player education and frequency of testing.

In recent months however, some cracks have started to appear.

AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou has flagged that the 2012 data will show an increase in positive tests from the six detections made in 2011. And there are evidently wider concerns within some AFL clubs and sections of the media about levels of drug use among players, and the capacity of the current AFL policy to address this issue into the future.

This prompted the AFL player welfare and drug summit held this week in Melbourne, where a number of key stakeholders and drug health experts gathered to take stock of the current AFL illicit drug policy (IDP), and consider options for change.

Judging from the rhetoric and reaction surrounding Wednesday’s AFL summit, the AFL IDP is about to change, and not necessarily for the better.

If the clubs get their way, they will be more involved in player drug testing and managing the outcomes of positive results. Depending on the model implemented, this could represent an impossible conflict of interest – club business pressures versus their responsibilities to player welfare and community, and inequities in club budgets available for drug-testing are just two factors that could create a real potential for abuse of the AFL drug policy.

The other likely changes to the AFL IDP include a tightening of the rules and ramifications around player self-reporting of drug use, and the expansion of off-season hair drug tests to inform the further target-testing of suspect players.

But the most concerning thing to emerge from AFL drug summit is the strong public message being given by many involved: that all instances of illicit drug use require correction or rehabilitation through mental health counselling and medical treatment.

One well-known psychologist at the AFL summit argued for the use of personality tests on players to measure their “addiction potential”, so they could be flagged as likely to have future problems.

Some clubs want earlier notifications if their players test positive, again because they want to help one way or the other. Tellingly, the Collingwood president’s take on it was that “Players with mental health issues need help and support. Those who are smart-arses need to be belted.”

And, former Hawthorn president, Jeff Kennett argued that clubs should be alerted earlier so they could support the player back to a “condition of good behaviour”.

It became clear this week that many in the AFL, and at least some experts, see drug use as a pathology needing a cure.

Such a stance makes sense from a community message perspective. When individual players inevitably test positive it allows the AFL and the clubs to say two things that the community wants to hear:

  1. Player X made the wrong decision, is remorseful, and is receiving the counselling and medical treatment that is necessary to correct his problem.

  2. The AFL drug policy is working.

However, the problem with the “drug use = pathology” message is that its simply not true. Not all instances of drug use reflect an underlying mental health or medical problem that requires counselling and treatment. We know from the available data that most people who use drugs never encounter major health harms from doing so, and never require treatment or rehabilitation.

The experience of most AFL players using drugs has most likely been positive. Shawn B Smith

But perhaps the biggest issue with the pathologising message gathering pace in the AFL setting is how the players currently using drugs, and perhaps those around them looking on, might interpret it.

As confronting as this will be for some, the experience of most AFL players using drugs has most likely been positive. They would find drugs exciting, pleasurable, fun, and may have also experienced perhaps unexpected enhancements to their performance in various areas (sexual, cognitive, physical, emotional and so on). That is why they do it.

We have to ask ourselves then, what real value is there in publicly framing drug use as a pathology needing medical treatment and cure, while the private experience couldn’t be more different in most cases?

The danger here is that such conflicting messages about drugs serve to teach the players and the community watching them that if you get caught doing something disapproved of like using drugs, you had better confess to having a mental health or medical problem that needs correcting, submit willingly to that rehabilitation you need, and all will be fixed.

Again, for the most part that’s not true, and it’s rarely that simple.

We should by all means put in place the best evidence-based policy structures and treatment options to assist those individual AFL players who do experience health and other problems caused by or related to drug use. A health and welfare focus like the AFL IDP is more effective than a punitive criminalising approach to illicit drug use.

But, we must also reflect on the credibility of the messages that accompany these health and welfare focused drug policies, in sport and in other domains of life.

The broader issue here is that we have a tendency to panic about drugs in our midst. Parents panic about their children using drugs. Teachers panic about drug use by students. AFL clubs panic about their star players using drugs and the damage to their brand and success.

We panic because we remember the terrible cases of lives ruined and lost through drug dependence. Such cases do exist.

We should also remember that drugs and other psychoactive substances have always served important spiritual, therapeutic, economic and cultural functions in our societies. We should remember that some of the most accomplished and celebrated people in history were drug users – authors, painters, poets, musicians, presidents and prime ministers, sportspeople, soldiers and generals and so on.

We must accept that drugs, illicit and otherwise, will continue to shape our society in the future too.

There is no doubt that the AFL executive, the AFL Players Association, and other community leaders have a responsibility to send appropriate messages about drug use and its potential consequences.

The most credible message we can give here is that we have an AFL illicit drugs policy that can privately provide the appropriate health and welfare assistance to players if and when it is needed.

Saying that all people who use illicit drugs require rehabilitation through mental health counselling and medical treatment is not true, and it is not helpful.

Panicking is no basis for effective drug policy.

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