Peter Watney, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation
Wayside Chapel in Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, 500 meters from Kings Cross, the heart of Sydney night life, opened a Safe Injecting Room which it has called the Tolerance Room, or T-room for short, on 3rd May 1999.
The law in NSW states that anyone aiding and abetting the consumption of illicit drugs is committing an offense punishable with a fine of up to $2,200 or imprisonment for up to 2 years.
The sponsors of the T-room include the Rev. Ray Richmond of the Wayside Chapel, the pastors of a local Catholic, a local Anglican, and a local Methodist Church, the Director of Alcohol and Drug Services at St. Vincents Hospital, the retired Member of the Legislative Council (Upper House of the NSW Parliament) who chaired the Parliamentary Inquiry into Safe Injecting Rooms, and have all appeared on television outside the Wayside Chapel saying that if they are convicted of aiding and abetting then so be it.
The Attorney General has said that this is clearly against the law, and it is up to the police to investigate and to bring charges if they find that the law has been broken.
The Premier of NSW has said that any action is up to the police. The Prime Minister of Australia has glowered at the cameras and said that it is clearly against the law and "sends the wrong message,' but that it is a state, not a federal, matter. Rev. Richmond has said that if they are charged and convicted they will reopen the T-room.
Two European visitors, Dr. Robert Haemmig of Berne Switzerland, who is involved with the Swiss heroin trials and with safe injecting facilities in Berne, and Franz Trautmann of the Trimbos Institute of Amsterdam were included in the photo of the group announcing the opening of the T-room.
They have pointed out that in the 20 plus years in the Netherlands and in the 12 years in Switzerland and Frankfurt, Germany that safe injecting rooms have been in operation, there has not been a single overdose death in a safe injecting facility, and that there is statistical evidence that there has been no increase in drug use as a result.
Franz Trautmann also pointed out to the media that the start of the change in Netherlands policies was the opening of an illegal safe injecting room in the basement of a Rotterdam church. Furthermore, the European experience has been that public order has considerably improved in the neighborhoods of the SIFs, and that the police and local business have been in favor of them. There has also been a marked reduction in associated crime in the neighborhood of the SIFs.
NSW lawyers have suggested that there is a probable defense for Wayside Chapel sponsors and staff, if they are charged, that it is a traditional function of the Church to provide sanctuary, and that that is what the T-room is doing.
The Director of Public Prosecutions in NSW is on record as supporting the concept of a heroin trial and of safe injecting rooms, but has also pointed out that where an offense is alleged and the evidence supports the offense, he must prosecute. An interesting situation.
Although Australian Capital Territory is separate from NSW, I and at least one other have involved ourselves in that we have both signed a cheque in support of the project and I have signed the supporting letter forwarding the money subscribed by the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, and there are several of us who will go to Sydney to help reopen the T-room if it is closed down.
If it continues to operate and provides similar statistics to those coming out of Europe, the Prime Minister will need to explain how improvements to mortality, morbidity, social conditions, public order and crime on the streets are a worse message than the present feral mayhem.
(To get the latest on this straight from the Australian media, go to http://www.news.com.au/ and click on "The Drugs Debate" link at the bottom left hand corner of the page, or link straight to http://www.theaustralian.com.au/index.asp?URL=/extras/013/index.htm.)