I've always been a fan of the movie Forrest Gump. In part that's because I'm a long-distance runner and, hey, any movie that normalises my somewhat bizarre pastime is a good thing. But it's also because I identify with Gump's simple wisdom - the insights he gains from his time on the road, and the practical lessons he can give others are something that we can find in our everyday lives.
I was thinking of Gump the other day while out running with the Speed Freaks. The Speed Freaks are a running club run under the auspices of Odyssey House here in Christchurch.
For those who haven't heard of it, Odyssey has been providing drug and alcohol treatment services for more than 30 years. Their best-known service is a men's long-term therapeutic community programme. Odyssey's perspective is that addiction is a health issue and programmes like theirs move from criminalising addiction to supporting recovery and improving health and societal outcomes.
The Speed Freaks started from an enthusiastic group of residents who wanted to run, staff supported this and it quickly became apparent we needed help – enter a group of volunteer coaches.
I've been tagging along on some of the Speed Freaks runs for a few months now, and the one thing that has surprised me, beyond some of the harrowing stories that the members have told me, is just how regular these folks are. Sure, the tattoos per skin surface area ratio is higher than for other parts of the population, but, beyond the appearance, these guys could be our sons, our brothers or our workmates - and, in many cases, they are.
As I was running along chatting with one chap, I was surprised to hear his story. While the orthodox view holds that these people come from the wrong side of the tracks, and have some kind of predisposition to bad life choices, the truth is very different. Private schools, well-heeled families and all the usual prerequisites for success - it's just that at some point somewhere, they took a bad path and that led them down an unfortunate direction. To use a well-known phrase: there but for the grace of God go we.
Odyssey House is situated in an old convent and, frankly, it's not exactly great digs. The organisation is doing its best to run a highly effective programme and needs a location to do it in which feels like it's fit for purpose and for this century. To this end, the trust is building a new, purpose-built facility which will be, finally, suitable for a 21st-century programme. It's just the paying for it that's a problem.
In talking with some of the staff who do heroic work at Odyssey, I was interested to hear some statistics around drug offending. Who knew (not me, for sure) that around 12 per cent of our population will experience a substance use disorder in their lifetime? Or that the estimated social cost from illicit drug use is $1.8 billion?
Given that the cost of incarceration (and, let's face it, drug use, in particular, that of methamphetamine, has a very strong correlation to prison incarceration) is in excess of $100,000 per prisoner a year, and the cost of treatment is around half that, one would have thought prevention services would get excellent levels of funding.
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Alas, not. In 2014/15, the Government of the time spent only $152 million on addiction treatment services. Given New Zealand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the OECD (and correspondingly high family violence and suicide rates) you'd be forgiven for thinking that, where addiction cessation programmes exist, the Government would be doubling down on funding them.
Not so. Despite an estimated $7 in social costs being saved for every $1 spent on addiction treatment, Odyssey is still struggling to pay for its new facility.
Odyssey's residential service outreach supported 123 participants in 2019, and its drug treatment programme at Christchurch Men's Prison helped a further 109 individuals. That's a huge amount of positive work that directly reduces the social impacts of drug use, and goes a long way to saving corrections from having to incarcerate more individuals. It directly saves NZ Inc a huge amount of expenditure.
Which takes me back to Forrest Gump and his simplistic, but practical, wisdom. Gump had an awesome habit of cutting through all the noise and saying it plainly. I can't help but think that, were Gump to come along on a Speed Freaks run, that he'd hear the stories and say simply: "More money on drug treatment equals less money on prisons. Ya gotta fund Odyssey's new building, it just common sense."
Oh and if you're a corporate that wants to do something that will really make a difference to NZ Inc, give Odyssey a call to talk about it.
• Ben Kepes is a Christchurch-based investor and entrepreneur.