- Greg Ewing for DRCNet

On June 21, the mayor of Melbourne (Australia), Ivan Deveson, proposed the establishment of a heroin trial in Melbourne as a way to reduce the growing number of deaths from heroin overdose.  Deveson said the trial should be similar to one proposed for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) last year, and which was cancelled by the Federal Government only shortly before it was scheduled to begin.

Counselor Deveson also revealed that the city is close to a decision on introducing safe injecting rooms for heroin users.  "We're either going to surpass the road death (with heroin overdoses), or we'll trial a safe injecting room."

Counselor Deveson was critical of Prime Minister John Howard's leadership on drug policy, and also voiced his despair over resistance to change amongst his peers: "... if anyone puts their foot in this water, they will be seen as too soft... because the community is so conservative.  (It's) led by our PM, a friend of mine.  Two years ago I was just as conservative.  But I would have to acknowledge I have shifted in this journey.  And I despair at the number of my generation who haven't come on that journey and who now will not understand when I tell them about the problem."

Last year, the province of New South Wales established a joint committee to investigate use of injecting rooms.  In one description of a de-facto shooting gallery in Sydney's Kings Cross, the committee was told an average of 60 customers paid $5 for the use of a room for 10 minutes over a 24-hour period.  A knock on the door signaled when your time was up, and also gave workers an opportunity to act quickly on an overdose.  An ambulance was required to attend three overdoses a week. There had been 10 deaths on the premises over the previous nine years.  The committee's report, submitted in February this year, contained a majority recommendation against establishing safe injecting rooms because of safety concerns, arguing that heroin remains an illegal and uncontrolled substance.

Frankfurt has had a steady decrease in the number of people dying from drug overdoses since the city introduced injecting rooms in 1991.  By 1996, fewer than 50 people died each year.  In Victoria, the total has been climbing steadily since 1991, to more than 160 deaths in 1996.

New statistics show that the Melbourne ambulance service attends 180 overdoses a month, or almost 6 a day.  In most cases Narcan can be administered and the patient comes-to immediately.  A report last year by the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence cited the absence of reporting systems for the non-fatal overdoses as a reason for the lack of a clear understanding about Australians' heroin use.

Following the mayor's heroin trial proposal, the Victorian Government said that they would endorse a national trial but not approve one held only in Melbourne.  The Premier said that such trials in Melbourne could be counter-productive by attracting drug barons as well as users from other states.  Educationionalists, students, and several medical bodies
applauded the calls.

Mayor Deveson later agreed that the council did not have the power to set up injection rooms, but he said "we're reaching a point where more young people between 15 and 25 are dying of drug overdoses than road death.  We haven't reached that point, but we will very soon if we don't consider an alternative".

The Lord Mayor states that his concern for Melbourne stems from his experience working in Detroit in the 1960s where he saw a degradation in standards.  Over the past few years, many more areas of Melbourne have developed a very visible street-trade in heroin.  Demand for syringes in the city had trebled in the past 3 years.

HEROIN USE INCREASING, ESPECIALLY AMONG YOUNG AND FEMALE

Victorian Drug Trends 1997, a federally commissioned report and the most comprehensive assessment of illicit drug use in Victoria, reveals an alarming trend for users to be younger and female.  Polydrug abuse was also on the increase.
 
Heroin may no longer be regarded as a "hard drug" by the drug community.  "In the past, drug users would say to us that they and their friends wouldn't use heroin -- heroin was for losers -- but now that's changed," said researcher Dr. Greg Rumbold.  He speculated that this could partly be explained because heroin had become more easily available and cheaper.  Most respondents (58%) said the price was
stable while a third said it had dropped as purity had increased.

Just under two-thirds (62%) reported involvement in crime in the previous month and, despite most believing there had been more police activity at the time of the survey, most (60%) said this did not make it harder to get drugs.  Forty percent of those involved in criminal activity had dealt in drugs and 36 percent admitted to property crimes.

The survey showed that 56 percent of respondents had overdosed at least once and three-quarters had witnessed an overdose.

Evidence collected also backs up national data showing that most heroin-related overdoses occur in older, more experienced users.  The median age of overdose victims attended to by ambulance was 27.

Victoria To Trial 4 Drugs To Facilitate Heroin Addiction Treatment

The first trial will compare two drugs, LAAM and buprenorphine, as maintenance treatment in 522 users, against methadone in 522 users.  Another maintenance treatment trial will involve 40 people taking slow-release oral morphine.  The third trial will have 250 addicts
taking buprenorphine as a withdrawal treatment.  In the final trial, 100 former users taking naltrexone to prevent relapse will be compared with 100 people taking dummy pills.

VICTORIA ANNOUNCES CAUTIONING SCHEME FOR DRUG USERS (7 JULY)

Following the success of a 6 month trial, Victoria announced that from September 1, first-time cannabis users will be cautioned if they are in possession of less than 50 grams.  A pilot for a similar cautioning system for other illicit drugs including heroin and cocaine is also to take place.

Those cautioned will be offered help and advice.  For drugs other than cannabis, users would have to undertake to accept some mandatory drug assessment and treatment in return for the caution.  The government has approved $600,000 for extra assistance to the 13 to 15 drug treatment agencies that could be involved in the pilot.

During the earlier cannabis-cautioning pilot program, only 8 of the 97 offenders cautioned re-offended during the 6 month trial period and 93 percent of police officers surveyed said the procedure saved resources for more serious matters.

Professor David Penington, who headed the Premier's Advisory Council on Illicit Drugs, yesterday congratulated police on their "substantial" change in attitude.  "They've recognized that the (drug) problem hasn't been solved by simple prohibition and that the problem was getting worse, with more young people especially getting involved in the heroin scene."

In an interview with the Melbourne Age, the Chief Commissioner of Police said that during two decades working as a police officer he had been locked into a hard line approach to drug users.  But he admitted the approach had not worked and said "I have in recent years changed my mind considerably."

The cost to the Victorian police and court system, through trying and then judging first-time marijuana users, is about $A25-$A30 million.

A SNAPSHOT OF CURRENT AUSTRALIAN CANNABIS LAW STATE BY STATE

 * South Australia

Most relaxed laws in country.  Decriminalised low-level use in 1987.  Cultivation and possession of up to 100 grams or 10 backyard plants attracts $A50-$A150 on the spot fine.  For greater amounts normal prosecutions apply.

 * New South Wales

Offenders must face court.  Fines and prison terms are common, although magistrates can release offenders without conviction.

 * Queensland

Same as for New South Wales.

 * Tasmania

Cabinet approval imminent on proposals to introduce a formal written caution for first-time possession of up to 50 grams.  Modeled on the new Victorian policy and will be tried for 12 months.

 * Australian Capital Territory

Personal use decriminalized in 1992.  Generally up to a $A100 fine, no conviction if found with less than 25 grams or less than 5 plants.  Police do however have the discretion to lay a criminal charge.

 * Western Australia

Conservative Government has been resisting calls for minor cannabis use to be decriminalized.  Offenders must face court but most minor offenders walk away with small fines.

 * Northern Territory

On-the-spot fines for possession of amounts less than 50 grams which were intended for personal use.

-- END --
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