Mental health focus is key to AFL drug rules

The current debate centres on the use of illicit drugs.

As in the wider community, the imperative is that those in need get the help of medical professionals, who are bound by confidentiality and must place patients’ interests above all else. It is not at all clear their interests would be best served by, in effect, transferring an added, undue chunk of the harm-minimisation responsibility to the club executives.

Global experience with the 50-year ‘‘war on drugs’’ has proved prohibition, although imposed with good intentions, has been a catastrophic failure. Yet the leaders of a number of AFL clubs want to impose stricter rules than ever, and to gain access to private data including mental health records. The interests of the players, the clubs, the AFL and the public can better overlap than they seem to do at the moment.

There have been claims, hotly denied by the players’ association, that recreational drug use is rife among players, particularly in the off-season. Suspensions under the previous two sets of rules have been all but non-existent. There have been some tragic cases of addiction and decline – the substance that has caused the most trouble for players and clubs is alcohol. We cannot know whether illicit substance use really is significantly different in the football cohort than in the overall population of young men.

There have been claims, too, of players using a mental-health exemption in the rules to cheat the system. Again, we cannot know the veracity, but it would seem an unwise move to risk demonising mental illness. Half the community will experience a bout of mental ill-health at some stage, including footballers. Many people use recreational drugs, including footballers.

Drugs are dangerous; the safest thing is to not take them at all. We do not condone substance misuse, but recognise reality and respect evidence, and urge that the review produces a positive outcome, not a punitive one.

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