Australian State to Open Legal Heroin Injecting Room 7/30/99

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Taylor West, [email protected]

The Australian state of New South Wales furthered its commitment to harm reduction for its heroin addicts by announcing an intention to set up Australia's first legal heroin injecting room. The facility will offer a medically supervised environment in which addicts can both inject their drugs and get information about treatment, rehabilitation, medical services, and safe injecting practices.

The safe injecting room will be operated by the Sisters of Charity Healthcare Services through the drug and alcohol unit of St. Vincent's Hospital. Dr. Alex Wodak, the director of that unit, says that overdose deaths in Australia occurred at a rate of approximately 71.5 per million people in 1997, a figure nearly double that of the United States. By attempting to bring heroin users off the streets and into a medical facility, New South Wales officials hope to greatly reduce those deaths while simultaneously giving addicts greater access to treatment and an atmosphere where they can face the demons of their addiction.

The facility itself will be modeled after similar injecting rooms that have been legal in Switzerland for several years. These include a laundry and shower area, where those coming off the street can wash up, a small cafeteria with inexpensive food and drinks, a common area with tables and chairs, and a stark, well-lit, minimally furnished room that serves as the actual injection area. Each area is staffed with medical professionals as well as volunteers, social workers, and drug counselors. Sterile needles are provided, and clients are encouraged to stay in the common area for at least 20 minutes after injecting. During that time, volunteers and counselors may strike up conversations that can lead to treatment and rehabilitation or simply educate the user about health risks and safer practices.

Government approval for the injection room is a significant step, even for a country in which harm-minimization has been the offical drug policy since 1985. The Kings Cross injecting room is being billed as a scientific trial, and four top researchers in the fields of drug treatment, criminology, health economics, and epidemiology have been recruited to evaluate the effort. Dr. Wodak told the Week Online that the government has made no permanent commitment to safe injection rooms. "This proposal... has been extensively discussed and carefully considered, " he commented. "It is a trial rather than the establishment of a permanent facility."

Drug policy issues have experienced high visibility in New South Wales since the state held a parliamentary Drug Summit in late May. The summit produced 172 recommendations -- the safe injection room among them -- to be considered for implementation and funding by New South Wales Premier Bob Carr. While the Australian federal government has voiced opposition to the injection room trial, the issue is fully within the state's jurisdiction. "This is a state matter," Dr. Wodak explained. "The Prime Minister has acknowledged this and expressed his disapproval. He has indicated that he will not stop this proceeding."

Within the state, support and community approval are relatively strong. Dr. Wodak estimates published opinions and letters to the editor are running at about half-and-half in regional newspapers. "There has been impressive support from some very influential leaders in the community." Meanwhile, the nuns of the Sisters of Charity, who will be running the facility, have been quiet but firm in their decision to be involved. In a statement that is the only press access the nuns have granted, the order declared, "The Congregation of the Sisters of Charity believes that compassion and respect for the dignity of human persons compels us to move beyond deliberation to positive action which redresses this most significant health and social issue for our nation."

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Issue #101, 7/30/99 House Reinstates "Social Riders" in District of Colombia Appropriations Bill | New Mexico Republicans Stop Short of Repudiating Governor | Jamaica: Lawmakers Consider Decriminalization of Marijuana, Medical Marijuana Research Facility | Clinton Administration Proposes Changes to Methadone Regulations | Army Spy Plane Disappears Over Colombia, Speculation of Coming US Intervention Abounds | Australian State to Open Legal Heroin Injecting Room | DEA Chief Acknowledges Agency's Ineffectiveness | Newsbriefs | Senate Considering Raising Methamphetamine Penalties | Editorial: Body Bags
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