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Australian Aborigines Turn To Anti-Drinking Programs

TWENTY-SIX years ago, at the age of 19, Bobby McLeod had the dubious ability to consume a pint of beer in six seconds. Today, Mr. McLeod, an Aborigine, is a nondrinker, and is also helping other native Australians get "off the grog."

Instead of handing out jail sentences, judges are sending Aborigines to McLeod's beach-side "self-healing" center, called Doonooch. McLeod says all the Aborigines who have gone through his treatment "properly" are now nondrinkers.

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McLeod is part of a refreshing wind shift within the Aboriginal community. Grass-roots movements now are springing up as Aborigines become increasingly distressed by the violence and damage excessive alcoholic consumption causes their communities. This revulsion has resulted in women patrolling the streets at night to discourage drinking, concerts designated as grog-free, Aboriginal sports days and, in some cases, the shutting down of beer canteens.

These grass-roots efforts are likely to receive some financial backing March 31, when the government is due to release its response to a Royal Commission that looked into the deaths in custody of 99 Aborigines. The commission singled out alcohol abuse as an issue the government must address.

Tourists visiting Alice Springs look out at groups of Aborigines drinking on the town's fringes. In February, drunken rioters in Queensland caused $80,000 (Australian; US$61,160) worth of damage and menaced police with spears and axes.

Anti-grog groups, inspired by the success of Canadian Indians at Alkalai Lake in British Columbia, now say change is possible. Residents used to call the community "Alcohol Lake." Both Native Americans and Aborigines developed patterns of binge drinking in groups, imbibing as long as they had money. Neither culture had much experience with alcohol and did not receive the right to drink until the 1960s.

About 15 years ago, Canadian Indians began returning to tribal customs and developed 28-day Alcoholics Anonymous-type programs. A key feature of their programs is the continuous training of instructors to prevent burn-out.

The founder of a number of those programs, Eric Shirt, has been hired by at least two Aboriginal groups as a consultant, and several anti-grog activists have gone through Mr. Shirt's training programs in Canada.

The movement coincides with some changes taking place in governmental attitudes. In November 1991, Marshall Perron, chief minister of Australia's Northern Territory, announced a major crackdown on alcohol sales. Among the measures was a new tax, a tightening of liquor license laws, and an education program. The Northern Territory has the largest number of Aboriginal residents in Australia.

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At the same time, the federal government in Canberra is reviewing its policies on alcohol and Aborigines. In the 1980s, Canberra funded residential treatment centers, most of which are now closed. It then shifted its focus to prevention through education.

That policy is now under review after a Royal Commission investigation into the deaths of 99 Aborigines while in jail. Alcohol was involved in all the arrests, the commission found. Its report last May stated that alcohol was having "a devastating effect" on the Aboriginal people of Australia, including "sickness and death, violence and despair, exclusion from education and meaningful employment," and "families and communities in disarray."

The report suggested the government focus on solutions devised by Aboriginal people and geared to their lifestyle.

Robert Tickner, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, said in a Monitor interview that the money spent on alcohol programs today is "woefully inadequate." The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Commission has budgeted A$5.4 million for substances abuse programs out of a budget of A$42.6 million for this financial year.

The government response is likely to include some of the ideas contained in a report prepared by the Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Planning Unit (CAAAPU) in Alice Springs. The 200-page report, called "The Way Forward," details the need for a comprehensive and coordinated attack on alcoholism. Among the report's recommendations:

* A treatment center where Aborigines can get away from "chaotic grog-saturated environments where poverty, unemployment, boredom, and alcohol-fueled violence are endemic."

* A three-year program to include training of community and family workers. "CAAAPU's goal is to develop a self-sustaining community of Aboriginal alcohol counselors who are capable of training others," says the report.

* "Living skills" courses to prevent relapses into alcoholism. There should be self-help "after-care" meetings similar to those held by Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, with counseling on such topics as budgeting and dealing with relatives.

The CAAAPU report estimates it will cost A$4.82 million to implement its Grog Action Plan. But the cost of setting up rehabilitation systems is minor compared with the cost of incarceration. According to one recent study, sending an Aborigine to a treatment center for 90 days costs A$1,300. A three-month jail term, on the other hand, costs taxpayers A$11,619.

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