Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Injecting room put off again

Bill Bush deplores the continued shilly-shallying.

Published in the Canberra Times  on Monday 22 December 2003

It is hard not to be cynical of politicians in the light of the ACT Government's decision announced by the Health Minister, Simon Corbell, to reconsign the establishment of a medically supervised injecting facility to the indefinite future.
In 1999 Kate Carnell's Liberal Government went out on a limb: it introduced and enacted with ALP support legislation to allow for a trial. The issue came up again in the next budget which a couple of independents who normally supported the Liberal Government opposed because of the injecting facility.
This gave the opportunity to the ALP Opposition to defeat the Government's budget. Faced with the prospect of no supply, the Carnell Government of course temporised and stayed on. The operation of the injecting facility was delayed until after the next election.
In the meantime, contrary to the principle that Government should lead in the direction that evidence strongly supports, the Humphries Government stated that it would invoke the legislation for an injecting room only if supported in a referendum after the election.
The ALP romped home in the 2001 elections. It committed itself to "assess the results of the NSW trial of a medically supervised injecting facility in Kings Cross in determining whether establishment of a similar facility is desirable in the ACT." This was a super cautious commitment in the light of existing favourable interim reports and the successful operation of 50 or more injecting facilities in Europe.
The final report issued in July 2003 confirmed the interim reports: the Kings Cross facility drew into treatment a substantial proportion of users not reached by existing services, it saved lives, reduced public nuisance and gained large and increasing support from the local community.
In light of information that heroin was seeping back into Canberra after the 2001 "drought", Mr Stanhope announced in November 2002,: "We are still committed to trialling a Supervised Injecting Place for the ACT and have reconvened the Supervised Injecting Room Advisory Committee to advise on the way forward".
This sits awkwardly with the Health Minister's announcement this week that "A Supervised Injecting Place trial in the ACT is a significant investment and the advice of the Taskforce is, in terms of its likely use and the cost effectiveness of a trial, that it is considered a lower priority."
It was the advisory committee was to advise the Government. The ACT Alcohol and other Drug Taskforce, whose report the Health Minister has just received, did not have the injecting facility in its remit.
What the Government is doing is capitalising on the fear of a range of cash strapped service providers that money for an injecting facility will come from their own inadequate budgets.
This is occurring in an environment where drug overdose deaths are probably back to their historic high levels of about one a month. I say "probably" because a Government decision has put ready access to data on likely overdose deaths outside public reach. In April this year the police reported "four deaths in the last 10 days". At least four more deaths have been reported since July.
The Government has availed itself of another ready made reason for not having an injecting room: that Canberra does not have a drug scene like that of King's Cross. Of course it doesn't, but a glance at maps showing the suburbs where overdoses occur, as revealed in the annual surveys of the Illicit Drugs Reporting system, shows that Canberra has several hot spots. Moreover, a comparison of those surveys over the years shows how they have moved as a result of government decisions.
The introduction of the closed-circuit television in Civic under the previous government transformed the drug scene there. The favourite tactic of Governments is to attempt to engineer health and social problems away by measures such as demolishing public housing. The decision announced in October to demolish the Currong Flats in Civic foreshadowed the decision not to go ahead with the injecting facility room.
Thus the serious social problems associated with illicit-drug dependency are shifted out into other suburbs where services are even harder to provide.
On the verge of 2004 we are where we were in 1999 - words, words and more words.

Bill Bush is a member of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform.