Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Supervised injecting place now deserves a fair go

By Brian McConnell

The debate is over

The historic debate in the ACT Legislative Assembly on Thursday 9 December of the "Supervised Injecting Room Trial Bill 1999" was sometimes well informed, sometimes disappointing, sometimes moving. Its passage just after midnight by a majority vote of 10 to 7 was certainly heartening.

Those supporting the bill called for compassion and understanding, identifying the need to provide help and assistance for those in need, or at the very least, provide an opportunity for drug users to stay alive until they were ready or able to change. Supporters also sought an evidence based approach for a way through the tragedy brought by drugs. Those opposing erected obstacles or suggested nothing more than intensification of the present strategies that are not coping.

Some speakers, who, 12 months ago were opposed to supervised injecting places, told how they had changed their minds and now supported. All those who changed their minds, changed from opposition to support. None changed in the other direction.

Hansard will confirm Mr Osborne’s attitude and closed mind to the debate. He, in contrast to others, was not present in the chamber and did not listen to any of the debate. Instead he "enjoyed [himself] watching a video".

 Response to existing situation

The debate in the Assembly is over but the debate still rages with some in the community. Witness for example

the article by Scott Rowell, Secretary of the AFP Association (The Canberra Times 11/12/99, C4),

the suggestion by the member for Monaro, Peter Web, that Civic Traders could move to Queanbeyan because the safe injecting place (SIP) trial would undermine business or

the paid advertisement of a doubtful ‘phone-in survey (The Chronicle 7/12/99) for which the author does not have the courage to identify himself.

These commentators are confusing cause and effect. The SIP trial is a response to the existing situation! The existing situation is that there are more drugs, they are cheaper and easier to get. More young people are injecting. Overdose call-out rates for the ambulance service is increasing (Heroin drug overdose rate soars in one year in ACT, Peter Clack, The Canberra Times, 12/12/99, p1). All of this is happening now and has not taken root overnight! All of this is happening with no supervised injecting room and in an environment where Prime Minister Howard’s "Tough on drugs strategy", which he was forced to introduce because of his naive veto of the heroin trial, has failed to have any meaningful outcomes.

Australian governments have so far found nothing to prevent the uptake of illegal drugs or turn around the tragedy. Perhaps it is because of the mixed messages between illegal and legal drugs where similarly dangerous legal drugs are promoted. Perhaps it is because of the mystique and danger surrounding illegal drugs. Perhaps it is because of the exorbitant profits for the Mr Bigs. Perhaps our drug policies fuel the fire. Whatever the reason, no effective preventative measure has been found and so, even while we ineffectually attempt to stem the flow of drugs into the country, we are forced to deal with the consequences and try new measures to minimise the harm.

 Trial will prove one way or another

Many a strawman has been set up and knocked down to "prove" that the SIP trial will not work; for example that a SIP will not address drug related crime. It will not directly address that issue. But every user that the SIP encourages into treatment can mean one less person doing crime – a strategy that the US Rand Corporation has found is 7.3 times more effective than law enforcement in reducing drug use. This makes it all the more important that the SIP is funded to provide comprehensive medical, counselling and other support services.

The trial will however provide answers to the question "can this measure reduce the health and social harms that are currently happening because of illicit drugs?". If we are serious about finding the real answers to this question (as opposed to those who already "know" the answers) then the trial must proceed. The different social and demographic circumstances of the ACT will add to the results to be obtained from NSW’s and Victoria’s injecting room trials.

 What is there to fear?

Understandably there are some concerns about the SIP trial because, for Australia, it is a radical approach. These concerns include how the police will handle the new situation or whether it will cause drug use to increase.

Police already exercise discretion in how they handle drug issues. The needle and syringe exchange is a case in point. It would however be easy to sabotage the trial by using Commonwealth law to arrest users in the SIP as has frequently been suggested by the local AFP Association. Neither the federal secretary of the AFP Association nor AFP management share this view, one therefore hopes they will respect the will of the people as expressed through the Assembly as the editorial of the Canberra Times (13/12/99 p8) points out.

The compassion shown recently by a beat policeman, who saved a life by taking an overdosed person to DRIC to be cared for until the ambulance arrived, provides an excellent model.

The concerns about increasing drug use is usually coded in the statement that "it sends the wrong message". I happen to believe that the message that it will send is that "we value your life and we want you to stay alive". A view shared by Kerrie Tucker, Greens MLA, who, in the debate also saw it sending "the signal that injecting is dangerous that is why it needs to be supervised".

Assertions about increasing drug use can be tested by the trial. A result of no increased drug use would seriously challenge assumptions underlying current drug policies. Perhaps there are some in our society who would not want such a challenge and would prefer the status quo?

Irrespective of what the messages about SIPs say, the current message has a poor track record – it is doing nothing to stem the alarming increase in drug use, drug overdose or drug deaths.

It seems that we have more to fear from persisting with the present system than trialing something new.

 Tackling the hard issues

The debate in the Assembly shows that some of our political leaders are prepared to tackle the harder issues. Some would say it is politically risky and risk backlash at the next election. Indeed some commentators have been urging Canberrans to telephone and express such views to SIP supporting Assembly members.

But recent polls are more informative than these commentators. Both Kate Carnell and Michael Moore had well known views on drug issues at the last ACT election and were easily returned to the Assembly. Recent opinion polls indicate that Jon Stanhope’s standing as leader has risen even in spite or possibly because of his public stand. Indeed he is now supported by his federal ALP leader Kim Beasley: "But you must keep addicts alive so that they have a chance to recover – that’s just logical". A survey undertaken two years ago, and recently released, shows that 58.5% of ACT residents either supported SIPs or were neutral.

Kerry Chikarovski in NSW stood for tougher law and order and is still in opposition. Steve Bracks in Victoria bravely campaigned saying he would establish 5 injecting rooms and now governs Victoria. Over the weekend, in the face of intensified efforts from Liberal opposition leader Dr Napthine against SIPs, Bracks secured the bonus of Jeff Kennett’s old "safe" seat.


It was an historic occasion for the ACT (as no doubt was the passage of a similar bill in NSW) because it clearly signals that drug addiction should be treated as a health problem, that saving lives is worth extra-ordinary efforts. It recognises the importance of evidence based drug policies.

The SIP bill has been passed into law and the debate on the issue in the Assembly is over. In the Australian tradition let’s now give the SIP trial a fair go!


Brian McConnell is President of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform