Di Natale urges health focus on AFL drugs

Federal Greens leader Richard Di Natale – a former footballer and doctor – has urged the AFL not to succumb to pressure and switch the focus of its illicit drugs policy away from player welfare.

The league’s contentious “three strikes” policy is being reviewed, with no shortage of encouragement to take a harder line on players after a season marred by drugs controversies.

Under the AFL’s policy on illicit drugs – not to be confused with performance-enhancing drugs – players are given two opportunities to respond to findings of drug use before being publicly named and handed a major sanction.

On a first test, only the player and club doctor are informed to ensure a medical approach.

Di Natale, who swapped his stethoscope and Sherrin for the Senate in 2010, urged those doing the review to maintain a medical-first model.

“I would keep it at three (strikes),” Di Natale told AAP.

“The focus needs to be on the health and welfare of individuals, and send the right message to the community.”

A former VFL footballer, general practitioner and public health specialist, Di Natale says AFL players deserve credit for agreeing to out-of-competition testing that places a higher burden on them than other athletes or members of the public.

Di Natale says a switch to a two-strikes model wouldn’t work if it resulted in the vilification and delisting of AFL players.

“What message does it send when the consequences of seeking a health professional is losing your employment?” he said.

“If somebody may have an underlying mental health issue, and that’s often the case with people that develop substance dependence, they shouldn’t be punished harshly with the threat of loss of employment, from something like depression and severe anxiety.

“There’s also a risk in what message it sends to a young person who is contemplating seeking help … it’s a negative message.”

The illicit drugs policy was established in 2005 with the support of the AFL Players Association.

AFLPA chief executive Paul Marsh said privacy remains a key priority for the policy “based on a medical model – one that focuses on education, counselling and treatment”.

“Despite views to the contrary, the facts are that the policy has been successful in changing player behaviour and deterring illicit drug use,” he said.

“In saying this the AFLPA is committed to continually improving the policy and we will continue to hold ongoing discussions with the AFL, other industry stakeholders and independent experts to determine what, if any, changes to the IDP are necessary.”

The cases of Gold Coast forward Harley Bennell and Collingwood pair Lachie Keeffe and Josh Thomas have brought the illicit drugs policy into sharp focus, and Di Natale suggested there were forces at work that were not in players’ best interests.

“If the driver is not the health and welfare of players, you have to wonder if it’s about the reputational damage to the AFL,” he said.

The AFL has previously given its intention to arrive at a new policy at season’s end.

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