Address by Rev Gregor Henderson

National General Secretary, Uniting Church in Australia

at the 4th Annual Remembrance Ceremony in Canberra, Oct 1999

All of us here today have been deeply touched one way or another by the tragedy of drug-dependence and the terrible suffering it brings. Most of us have been touched very personally, with the death of a daughter or son, a partner or close friend, a brother or sister – and the pain and anguish of that loss seems hardly to lessen; it will remain with us for the whole of our lives. Others of us are your friends and supporters, feeling for the futility of drug-related deaths, wanting to stand with you in solidarity and love. All of us, I suspect, are frustrated at our society’s attitudes towards drug users, at our slowness to develop and trial new possibilities in prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.

As we remember the shock and the hurt of having someone close to us become drug-dependent and their life come to a premature end, we need to remind ourselves that their lives, whether they were 17 or 24 or 33 years old, did know joy and love and fulfilment and that we have good reason to remember them with thanks – for what they gave to us, their family and friends. But we would hope for more than that too – that somehow their lives and deaths will contribute to the community’s efforts to move towards healing and justice in relation to illicit drugs. As a Christian minister, I would also want to add my conviction that death is not the end of the story, that life goes on beyond death, with God, the God of compassion and love and justice.

There is much in the world’s approach to illicit drugs which needs repair.

It is not right to treat drug users as criminals, as outcasts, as people who are beneath compassion and love.

It is not right that people die from drug dependency, in alleyways or parks, in living rooms or hospital casualty wards.

It is not right that people die from unintentional overdoses, from highly toxic mixtures of drugs, from shared needles.

It is not right that people die when new approaches and treatments are available but governments lack the courage to permit them.

It is not right that society has been unable to find better ways of caring for drug users and moving them towards rehabilitation.

It is not right that some, the real criminals, profit from the importation and sale of illicit drugs.

It is not right that people, especially young people, are exploited mercilessly by the Mr and Mrs Bigs of the drug trade.

It is not right that parents of young drug users have great difficulty in finding help for their sons and daughters who are using drugs and for themselves as they want desperately to help them.

It is not right that parents are forced to break the law by allowing their drug-using offspring to inject safely at home in preference to throwing them out on the streets.

Surely it is time for a much bigger dose of compassion in relation to illicit drugs. Not all of us here share the Christian faith, but I trust we do know that Jesus Christ was a person of immense compassion who taught and showed that no-one is beneath God’s care, and that therefore no-one should be beneath our care. Despite the strong opposition of the religious and government authorities of his time, Jesus reached out to the outcasts of his day, to those who didn’t count – to the lepers and the blind, to the poor, to wrongdoers, to all in need. Today, I have no doubt he would have us reach out to drug users, in love.

Those of us who follow Christ are involved in ministries related to illicit drugs, in educational programs in schools, in providing rehabilitation centres, in housing the homeless and feeding the hungry, in some advocacy for change, and, sadly, in conducting funerals. But it is not enough.

I was pleased to discover just yesterday that the Uniting Church’s Canberra Region Presbytery, the district body of the church which covers the ACT, recently adopted a new drugs policy. It has expressed support for “a public health approach to the problems facing injecting drug users” and for a “scientifically conducted heroin trial” within overall strategies of treatment and rehabilitation, community education and law enforcement against those who promote and sell illicit drugs. That has to be the way for us to go here in Australia, to reduce the immense pain, suffering and cost of illicit drugs. I would want to add my support for safe injecting rooms as well as for a properly conducted heroin trial. The sooner these start the better, for every week we delay brings more unnecessary deaths and hurt.

Today, we remember those who’ve died from illicit drugs with love and thanks as well as with pain and anger. Today, we give and receive from each other the support and solidarity of being here, together. Today, we renew our commitment to acting with compassion for all who suffer from drug dependency. Today we ask our governments again, that they take new approaches to illicit drug use, maintaining law enforcement against the drug-traders but showing new compassion for drug-users, that through such programs as injecting rooms and heroin trials the death toll will be reduced and successful treatments found.

May we today be strengthened by each other, and by God, to live our lives in compassion and love and the pursuit of justice, remembering those who have lost their lives to illicit drugs.