Melbourne Needs an Injecting Room: An Interview with Australian Sex Party Leader Fiona Patten

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Australian Sex Party Leader Fiona Patten

There’s a renewed push for a medically supervised injecting centre to be established in Melbourne, amid concerns over continuing overdose deaths on the streets. Leading the campaign is Victorian Sex Party MLC Fiona Patten, who introduced a private member’s bill before parliament on February 8.

The Pilot Medically Supervised Injecting Centre Bill 2017 calls for an eighteen month trial of a safe injecting facility, with the aim of reducing overdose deaths and the spread of blood-borne diseases, as well as improving the amenity of the local community.

Widespread support, but the government is hesitant

Forty five community organisations have spoken out in favour of the proposal. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett has been a vocal advocate for a safe injecting room for years now. And the Victorian Australian Medical Association and the Pharmacy Guild support the trial.

However, as might be expected, those at the top are reluctant. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said the proposal wouldn’t go ahead. He added that other harm minimisation options are available, but declined to reveal what these might be.

Victorian mental health minister Martin Foley told reporters, “Alcohol and drug problems are not issues that we can arrest our way out of. This is first and foremost a health issue.” But in the same breath, he said there were no plans to establish a safe injecting facility.

The success in Kings Cross

But these politicians are ignoring the evidence from north of the state border that clearly shows safe injecting facilities are the answer. The Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in Sydney’s Kings Cross is the jewel in the crown of harm minimisation.

Established over fifteen years ago, the MSIC has led to an 80 percent reduction in ambulance call-outs, while reports of public injecting and the amount of publicly discarded needles have halved. And during its time in operation, over 6,000 potentially fatal overdoses have been prevented.

As medical director of the facility Dr Marianne Jauncey has pointed out there’s never been a fatal overdose at any of the 90-odd safe injecting facilities around the world.

The centre also acts as a gateway to other drug treatments and health and mental welfare services for some of the most marginalised people in the community.

Former NSW premier Bob Carr said at his retirement that the establishment of the centre was one of his ten greatest achievements in office. So perhaps Daniel Andrews should consider that.

The need in north Richmond

The proposed location for the trial safe injecting room is north Richmond. The area has been the site of an active street drug market for decades now. There were 96 drug overdose deaths in the local area between the years 2009 and 2015.

The Yarra City Council supports the establishment of the centre in its municipality. In May 2011, the local council voted six to one in favour of trialling a supervised injecting room.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Australian Sex Party leader Fiona Patten about her bill to establish a safe injecting room trial, and why it’s so desperately needed.

On February 8, you introduced your private member’s bill before parliament. What does it outline?

The bill creates an exemption from the Drugs and Poisons legislation in Victoria to allow for drug users with small quantities of a drug of dependence to use that drug within a confined, designated area.

The bill gives the authority of the licence of that designated area, equally to the police commissioner and the secretary of health.

It mirrors the NSW legislation, because there was really no reason to reinvent that, when it has been so successful in NSW.

The proposed location of the safe injecting room trial is north Richmond. The facility has the support of the Yarra City Council. What’s been the reaction of your fellow MPs? Is there much support for the pilot program within parliament?

Privately, there’s a lot of support. Publicly, they’re worried. They fear for the politics of this.

They fear that they will be accused that they’re being soft on crime. When we all know, that it’s quite the opposite. What this does is free police up to deal with crime, rather than dealing with the victims of crime, being the drug addicts who are overdosing in the street.

So there’s that fear that they’re being soft on crime. They’re nervous about it.

They shouldn’t be. They’ve got the Pharmacy Guild, the AMA, the ambulance employees, the paramedics, the fire brigade, the nurses’ association and every emergency department in every hospital in Victoria supporting it. So there’s overwhelming support.

They think it’s contentious. I don’t think it’s contentious.

And what’s the situation like in north Richmond today?

It’s like Kings Cross in the 1990s. When we were launching the Needle Nightmare Campaign there were guys doing deals in the carpark, pretty much in direct view of the journalists.

Behind that there were the police picking up needles in an alley, ignoring the drug dealing that was going on, because they were dealing with a much more urgent public health issue.

There’s six ambulance call-outs for overdoses every week in north Richmond. There are three deaths due to overdose every month. There are 60,000 syringes discarded, and that are picked up, every year in a 300 square metre area. Now this is absolutely desperate.

The residents are just so sick and tired of it. They’re saying they no longer want people overdosing and injecting in their backyards. They actually want them doing it in a medically supervised injecting centre.

As you just mentioned, you’ve been in north Richmond today launching the Needle Nightmare campaign and speaking to the press about the safe injecting room trial. What was the response like?

The response was remarkable. We’ve got the support of the traders and the support of the residents. The Salvation Army, you wouldn’t say, is the most progressive organisation out there. They were calling on this.

We had the Pharmacy Guild calling on this. We had local doctors, local residents, ambulance drivers, the fire brigade – who are often the first responders there – lawyers and health workers.

The people who are handing out those needles and running the needle exchange programs down in the area, they were all there. They’re all crying out for a centre like this.

And to allay the fears of the politicians, this is a trial that will be administered by the police commissioner. If this doesn’t work, it gets closed down.

I don’t know what the politicians are afraid of, because this is about saving the lives of some of our most hardened drug addicts, who are generally homeless and totally disengaged from the system. This is about getting them back into the system.

It’s about trying to connect them with opioid replacement treatments. And trying to connect them with mental health services. We know the vast majority of this cohort are suffering from mental health issues, as well as varied general health issues.

So a facility like this will put these people in contact with these services.

That’s right. The North Richmond Health Centre is already equipped with all of those allied health services, with opioid replacement treatment, mental health services and general health services. They can put them in touch with legal services and homeless services.

So this is about reengaging and reconnecting with this small group of people that are causing six ambulance call-outs a week and three overdoses a month. It’s about connecting with this incredibly hard to get at group.

But also, in Kings Cross there was an 80 percent reduction in ambulance call-outs in the local area. So just think about where those ambulances could be going now. They could be getting to stroke victims quicker. They could be getting to heart attack victims quicker.

So this won’t only improve the health outcomes for that small cohort of desperate drug addicts, but it will also improve the health of the general community.

And how are Victoria police reacting to the idea of a safe injecting facility?

Victoria police, they can’t go outside government policy. But the commissioner of police in Victoria did say that he would absolutely support a trial of a safe injecting centre if it was government policy. So we’re working with the police.

This all started for me when attending a coroner’s enquiry about a 34-year old mother of three, who died of a heroin overdose at lunchtime on a Sunday in a fast food toilet. So she lost her life, but the lives of her three children are pretty bleak now.

And imagine her mother, her sisters and her brothers. So it’s extended families that we as politicians need to consider.

This should not be a political issue, and the most awful thing about this is that if this was 34 people a year dying of asthma in north Richmond, we would be pulling out all stops. We would be doing whatever we can.

I would hope that my colleagues do not rate these lives as less valuable, and rate the lives of their families as less valuable, than other members of society. But unfortunately, up until now, that’s been the case.

But the push for the establishment of a safe injecting room in north Richmond has been going on for decades now. Why hasn’t it succeeded in the past? What’s been stopping it?

You’re absolutely right, Paul. In the 1990s, it had bipartisan support. But the traders were very concerned back then. They were concerned that it would lead to a honeypot effect. That this would bring more drug users to the area.

Now those concerns are no longer there. The traders support this. They realise that this is not going to create a honeypot effect.

What this is going to do is improve the amenity of the area, reduce the number of people who are hitting up on the doorsteps of their businesses and taking over the public toilets in the restaurant precinct.

So now there is no voice out there opposing it, where I think back in the 90s – prior to the fifteen years of having a centre in Kings Cross – there was a lot of questions about the efficiency and the effectiveness. They have all been answered now.

There’s ninety locations around the world with medically supervised injecting centres and not a single death in any one of them. The government talks about harm minimisation. This is harm minimisation at its peak.

And lastly, the bill is before parliament, the pilot program has the support of harm reduction experts, the Victorian AMA, and the Pharmacy Guild, what’s the next move in getting this trial off the ground?

It will be debated in the upper house on Wednesday. Certainly, I’ve got the support of the Greens party members. I’ve got the support of at least one of the independents, James Purcell. I would hope to have the support of other crossbenchers.

And now, it’s just about convincing the government and the opposition to put politics aside and put the lives of these people and their families at the forefront.

Fiona thanks very much for speaking with us today. And I hope the safe injecting room in Richmond finally becomes a reality.

Yeah cheers. Thanks Paul.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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