In what can only be described as a terribly misguided move, Victorian Opposition leader Matthew Guy has announced that if he wins the state election on Saturday, he’ll be shutting down the newly-opened North Richmond Medically Supervised Injecting Room (MSIR) in his first week in office.
The leader of the Victorian Liberals made the announcement on Wednesday, placing the closure of the safe injecting facility front and centre of his party’s plans for its first 100 days in office, which includes a significant tough-on-crime platform.
The MSIR commenced operations on the 30 June. And it’s already dealt with 320 overdoses, including 61 serious incidents. And while Guy has raised concerns about its proximity to a school, locals are more than pleased with the positive impact the facility has had on the surrounding area.
A decade-long community campaign led the Andrews government to take the bold move of approving a trial of the safe injecting facility in October last year. This followed 34 overdose deaths in the local area already in 2017, as well as 96 drug-related deaths locally between 2009 and 2015.
So, basically, Mr Guy has set up a scenario where a vote for his party at this Saturday’s election is a vote for unnecessary deaths.
“It will be a tragedy, because it will cost people’s lives,” warned Greg Denham, executive officer of the Yarra Drug and Health Forum. “The announcement flies in the face of the evidence that fully supports the introduction of the facility.”
Mr Denham pointed out that the MSIR has improved amenity in the local area and seen less drug affected people on the street. “It’s fulfilling all of its goals,” he continued. “And it’s still supported by the local community, including the school and the residents.”
Residents group Victoria Street Drug Solutions was a leading voice in the campaign to see the facility established. A demonstration organised by the group in February last year saw 700 locals take to the streets calling for the government to open the MSIR.
And significantly, the Victoria Street Business Association wants the facility to remain. Once a vocal opponent of the MSIR, the local business representative group now states that the improvements it’s brought to the local area are clearly evident.
According to Denham, if an elected Coalition government closed the centre then it would be a return to the situation over the last decade: people injecting in public, needles and syringes everywhere, people dying from overdose and excessive demands on emergency services.
A gateway for those in need
As it stands the North Richmond MSIR is set to trial for a two year period with the possibility of an extension of a third year. And moves are already underway to expand the facility, which has been servicing up to 200 clients a day.
Apart from saving lives and removing drug use from the street, another important aspect of the facility is that it acts as gateway to health services for some of the most vulnerable and marginalised members of the community, who would otherwise not come into contact with them.
Complicit in subsequent harms
The legislation that allowed for the trial was largely modelled on a bill Victorian Reason MLC Fiona Patten introduced in February last year. She told Radio 3AW on Wednesday that if he is successful, she hopes Mr Guy attends the funerals of all those who die as a direct result of the MSIR closure.
“The Liberal’s plan to close the centre is completely incomprehensible and reckless” Ms Patten told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. “The most likely impact is that North Richmond will revert back to being an unsafe injecting area.”
Ms Patten stated that drug use in Richmond “has reached crisis levels”. And since the opening of the MSIR, its impacted beneficially upon this epidemic. “Before the opening there were four to eight ambulance call-outs a day, that number has dropped to five call-outs in the last four months.”
An evidence-based approach
In the late 1990s, there was a similar overdose crisis occurring in Sydney’s Kings Cross. This led courageous politicians to sanction a trial of a safe injecting facility in 2001. And so successful was the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) that by 2010 it was a permanent fixture.
Studies revealed that in its first 10 years in operation, the MSIC resulted in an 80 percent drop in ambulance call-outs, while public injecting and discarded needles had halved. Robbery and property offences were down and there had been no increase in drug offences.
Since its been open, the MSIC has managed over 6,500 overdoses. And as the centre’s medical director Dr Marianne Jauncey has pointed out, that there’s never been a fatal overdose at any of the supervised injection sites around the world.
The facility reduces crime
“There’s no rationale to this,” Mr Denham said. “They intend to use the injecting room to drive a moral panic and try to persuade people that a program like the injecting facility flies in the face of law and order, which in actual fact it doesn’t.”
And Mr Denham ought to know, as he’s a former police senior sergeant, who served on the Victorian force for 15 years. He asserts that the facility actually supports law and order, as those who attend are eventually led into programs that reduce their drug use and in many cases criminal activity.
“So, by shutting down the injecting room it will actually increase crime and harms to society,” Denham made clear.
Twilight of the drug war
“The war on drugs is not working, but the Liberal Party are still trying to arrest the way out of the issue and it is costing lives and money,” Ms Patten stressed. She added that Mr Guy is spurting the same old rhetoric and ignoring what the community has to say on the issue.
Ms Patten recalls that when she first raised the issue of the MSIR with premier Daniel Andrews, he said it wouldn’t happened. “But I believe it is a sign of a very good leader when they will listen to the evidence and change their minds.”
The Reason Party leader is heading into the current election with a sensible drug policy that includes decriminalising personal drug use and legalising cannabis. And considering the headway she made in initiating the MSIR and the state’s assisted-dying laws, her policy could easily become a reality.
“The ambulances, the police, the coroner and most importantly the community activists were united in backing the centre, but the Liberal party wouldn’t listen then and won’t listen now,” Ms Patten concluded.
“This decision to shut the centre is very much in line with their naive tough-on-crime approach, which will only result in bigger prisons being built.”
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.