In a dramatic 180-degree turn from his previous position, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews this week announced the government’s plan to introduce a safe injecting room in North Richmond. The centre, which will run out of North Richmond Community Health, will be trialled over a two-month period in an attempt by the Andrews government to reduce the staggering human cost of heroin addiction in the Melbourne suburb, where twenty people die across an area of seven blocks every year.
With overdose deaths hitting a sixteen-year high in 2016, the pressure has been mounting on the Andrews government to take drastic measures to keep people safe. A safe injecting centre, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, effectively does as it says on the tin: a safe, clean room for drug users to inject their chosen substance using sterilised equipment. The Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney – the first of its kind in the Southern hemisphere – has supervised over a million injections, and handled over six thousand overdoses, all without a single death. That’s over six thousand mums, dads, sons, and daughters who still get to tell their loved ones goodnight. Without safe injecting centres like the one in Sydney, there is often no clear pathway to treatment for injecting drug users, and no guarantee of safety for drug users. Risks of overdose and chemical contamination in their drug of choice – as it’s extremely rare for anyone to purchase pure, unadulterated drugs on the street, where dealers frequently “cut” their chemicals with flour, washing powder, and other substances – are significant danger factors for injecting drug users.
In addition to the safe injecting centre trial, the government has pledged $87 million to their drug rehabilitation plan, including an additional hundred residential rehabilitation beds. The aim of this plan is to combat the ice and heroin epidemic currently ravaging large swathes of Victoria’s cities and regional centres. The safe injecting centre enjoys the backing of the nurses, paramedics and firefighters’ unions. Even the Victorian police union supports the idea of a safe injecting room. While this expenditure is admirable, the government must take further measures to ensure the continued safety of patients. What happens if a patient relapses upon return to their community? Preventative programs (like SMART Recovery Australia) and in-community support networks are vital to people maintaining control over their habits, and finding an evidence-based, cost-effective program of prevention must be a priority if the Andrews government wants to ensure the continued health and quality of life of Victorians.
As we often say, SMART Recovery Australia wholeheartedly embraces a harm minimisation approach. In this particular instance, that means keeping people alive. As Premier Andrews said, “”There can be no rehabilitation if you are dead“. The first priority of any government’s drug policy must be to keep its constituents alive and as healthy as possible. Safe injecting centres provide not only clean needles and a reduced-risk space for injecting drug users to stay off the streets, but can generate a pathway to rehabilitation. Being around nurses, doctors, and information about available rehabilitation and detox services is a far more effective means of steering people with addictions towards recovery than allowing them to continue injecting in car parks, public bathrooms, or in the street. It’s a far more effective means of keeping people alive, too.
Although the safe injecting centre should be applauded as a step forward, the government has taken other steps as part of this initiative. For example, the punishable quantity for heroin trafficking has been reduced from 250g to 50g. Whether or not increased punitive measures will have an impact on the rates of drug death, or simply increase the volume of people entering the legal system for drug offences, remains to be seen. Examining the heroin epidemic as a health issue is vital to effectively treating those who are affected by it, and finding ways to legally and safely manage injecting drug use is the only way to prevent future deaths.