Community members urge government to back safe injection facility

The following report is the result of a collaborative effort, involving participants at the rally for an injecting room in Richmond, which took place on Saturday 27 August.

Hundreds of mainly residents and small business owners rallied in Richmond, in inner Melbourne, to call on the state Andrews government to support the setting up of a safe injection centre in the municipality.

The area around the Victoria Street restaurant strip has become Melbourne’s premier illicit drug distribution point and last year alone, there were 34 local drug use related deaths.

Local shopkeepers and residents have for a long time been calling on the government to do something about the problem. Trade in illicit drugs brings about a rise in local crime, committed by people desperate to raise the money for their addiction. The extent begging and hustling people at the doorways of local businesses is keeping customers away. Although only involving a tiny proportion, the rise in assaults in the street has been enough to cause alarm and diminish  the sense of safety. The large number of discarded syringes is another major issue.

At the same time, there is a growing realisation that the problem of addiction is essentially a health issue, which heavy handed policing is not going to solve and that the best option is to have a safe injecting centre that will provide needed services to users and give them the best chance to manage their situation.

A safe injecting centre is also seen as the best option for removing the presence of the drug trade from Victoria Street and around neighbouring residences.

The Yarra council supports the concept. But the Victorian government’s current policy is to oppose it. Nevertheless, a current parliamentary inquiry will soon come down with a report and many of the submission that have been made to it, make it clear that the prevailing opinion of practitioners and others who work in the field that a changer in this policy would lead to a much better outcome. There is an expectation that the report will accept the expert input.

People came to the rally to point out that lack of action has caused preventable deaths. They heard heart-wrenching accounts of families who had lost loved ones to drug addiction.

Laura Turner spoke of the death of her sister Skye, who died from a heroin overdose in March 2017. “She lay dead in the back of a van on Elizabeth Street in the CBD, that beautiful face, that incredible mind, had slipped away,” she said.

Her sister could have been saved if medical assistance had been available when she took that final, fatal hit of heroin, she said, imploring the Victorian government to trial a supervised injecting facility and urging the community to adopt a more compassionate approach to those grappling with drug addiction.

“A safe injecting room isn’t a place to party, this is a common misconception I’ve heard. It’s not a place where drugs are handed out for free and they all go and have a good time. It’s a place where addicts, people who have suffered some of the worst that life can throw at us, can go and have medical supervision while they inject a drug they probably hate.”

It is somewhere safe, where those suffering addiction can  have access to professional help to overcome a range of health related and other issues, and ultimately, to deal the problem of addiction itself. A safe injection centre, suggest its proponents, will also undercut the illicit drug trade and remove the associated problems from the streets.

Prominent barrister Robert Richter, QC, who is also president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, said a safe injecting room for North Richmond was a “no-brainer”.

“I supported it almost 20 years ago, when the Wesley Church spent $500,000 on a facility in Lonsdale Street. It never got up, and now we’re talking about the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands of people,” he said.

Three Victorian coroners have also endorsed the introduction of a facility like the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney.

Introduced in 2001, the centre in Kings Cross has supervised more than 1 million injections, and managed more than 6000 overdoses without a single fatality.

The obvious site for a similar facility in Richmond would be at the nearby health centre, which already treats as large number of drug users and supports the concept.

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