By most accounts, the new Victoria Labor government led by Premier Steve Bracks is sincere about dealing with the state's heroin problem in a humane and harm minimizing fashion. The state, whose largest city is Melbourne, had 359 heroin fatalities last year, and Bracks campaigned on a platform calling for the establishment of "injection rooms," or safe and sanitary facilities where addicts could shoot up. The heroin issue helped Bracks defeat a popular Liberal Party incumbent.
In January, Bracks began making good on his campaign promises. He appointed a commission of drug experts headed by Dr. Richard Penington to study how to implement the injection room program. Then, on June 1, the Bracks government introduced the Injecting Facilities Bill in the state parliament. The bill calls for:
The Liberals, or at least their leadership, seem more interested in embarrassing the Bracks government than in cooperating responsibly to resolve the heroin problem. Liberal leader Napthine told the Melbourne Herald Sun, "The party has severe reservations about these facilities," and added that he found one downtown Melbourne center "obscene."
That comment inspired the Wesley Central Mission's Rev. Tim Langley to tell the Herald Sun, "What's obscene is the 30% increase in the number of young Victorians who died last year of a heroin overdose."
Whether the Liberals really have "severe reservations" remains to be seen. The Australian media has quoted some Victoria Liberal parliament members as saying they gave qualified backing to the concept of injection rooms, if not necessarily to the bill.
But despite the Bracks' governments efforts to modify the bill to make it more palatable to the Liberals, nothing so far has mollified them. Bracks offered a two-stage approval process, with a vote on approval of the plan "in principle," slated for August. That vote would be followed-up with a February vote on the merits of individual injection rooms. Labor Party leaders told The Age (Melbourne) that the plan would give the state parliament a "double veto" and ensure that the parliament will be "the final arbiter of a rigorously controlled trial."
Health Minister John Thwaites told The Age the plan needed to move forward. "If it doesn't work, we'll wear the blame," he said. "All we want to do is get them (the Liberal opposition) on board, so we can try it."
Thwaites told The Age that the opposition "is trying to have it both ways." He said the Liberals had asked to be involved in developing the injection room proposals, and his government had given them that opportunity.
Liberals, however, continue to snipe at the bill, criticizing it for, among other things, being undemocratic. Liberal spokesman Robert Doyle charged that the municipal councils, which must approve injecting rooms within their locales, did not represent the views of their communities. Since the councils are democratically elected, such charges have not gone unchallenged.
The mayor of Port Phillip, Julian Hill, said his council was "very representative" of the community. "I think Mr. Doyles' comment is a stupid throw-away line," he said.
Citizen and business groups inflamed by anti-drug zealots and moral entrepreneurs are also throwing up roadblocks to the centers. Three of the five municipalities proposed for injection rooms have already rejected them, often after long and bitter public meetings.
Those meetings have provided a forum for legitimate local concerns, but have also served as an outlet for social conservatives eager to gain political capital by grandstanding on the injection room issue. Peter Faris is a case in point. An attorney and former head of the National Crime Authority (he resigned under a cloud of scandal in a matter of months), Faris is making a name for himself as a leading opponent of injection rooms. He has led unruly crowds at municipal council meetings and has been quoted as admitting that injecting rooms would save lives, but still opposes them.
Prohibitionist sentiment is not limited to the Victoria injecting room debate. As the argument in Victoria heated up in mid-June, drug war fundamentalists convened the Australia Drug Summit 2000 in Sydney. Convened by the Salvation Army's Major Brian Watters, the summit claimed the support of Australian Premier John Howard, a Liberal, and New South Wales opposition leader Kerry Chikarovski, also a Liberal, as well as that of Parliament Member Rev. Fred Nile, considered a crackpot by drug reformers.
Highlights (or lowlights) of the conference, which called for a zero-tolerance approach to drugs, included presentations by California Pastor Sonny Arguinzoni, who claims to have overcome heroin only with God's help and a shrill warning about the dangers of marijuana from Dr. John Anderson. Anderson, who has long campaigned against marijuana, told a receptive audience that, "If you smoke a joint once a week, you are under the influence of cannabis constantly." Anderson is also convinced that pot is linked to "cognitive deficit," schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder.
Despite the opposition, say Australian drug reformers, the bill can still make it into law. Alex Wodak, director of alcohol and drug services at St Vincent's Hospital, told DRCNet that, day-to-day ups and downs notwithstanding, "Victoria is steadily moving down a reform path, but the speed is glacial." In the broader national context, said Wodak, "It is a very similar picture across many states of the country." And Wodak is optimistic that Premier Howard, who has impeded reform, will be defeated in the next election. "The next Prime Minister of Australia, whoever that will be, will be far less supportive of zero tolerance and may even allow some cautious reforms to take place," he said.
Brian McConnell, president of Family and Friends for Drug Law Reform, also sees the struggle in Victoria as both important and winnable. "Victoria is in many ways a leader," he told DRCNet. But, McConnell said, it is crucial that supporters of the bill take actions to improve their prospects. Among them, McConnell includes convincing parents who are affected by drug use or deaths in their families to speak out, responding promptly to lies and misinformation promulgated by opponents, and holding supporters to high standards of honesty and openness.
Also, supporters say, it is important to understand that the parliamentary situation is still fluid. Only three members of the parliamentary opposition need to vote in favor of the bill in order for it to have sufficient votes to pass. In the meantime, it is important that the Victoria Labor Party government keep its resolve and solidify its votes.
Finally, Peter Watney of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation points out, injecting room proposals are also on the table in the Australian Capitol Territory (Canberra) and New South Wales, home of Sydney, the nation's largest city. "In order to make a decisive win," Watney told DRCNet, "the opposition really has to defeat injecting rooms in all three areas. They may defeat us in any one of the three, perhaps even two of them, but hopefully at least one will open for service."
Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform is online at http://www.ffdlr.org.au. The Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation is online at http://home.vicnet.net.au/~adlrf/.