Australia's first legal heroin injecting room is tantalizingly close to opening in Sydney after an Australian Supreme Court judge rejected a last-ditch legal challenge from local businesses. Meanwhile, Green Party representatives are preparing to introduce a bill in the New South Wales (NSW) Parliament that would allow Amsterdam-style "cannabis cafes" to open up across the province.
The injection room, to be operated by the Uniting Church in the Kings Cross neighborhood of Sydney, first became official policy at the NSW Drug Summit in 1999, but has been delayed by papal interventions and legal challenges ever since. On April 5th, Supreme Court Justice Scully struck down the last challenge, from the Kings Cross Chamber of Commerce, which had questioned the center's location.
Justice Scully held that while the injection room raised "large questions of public policy, of public morality, of social psychology, and of social welfare," those were not for the court to judge, having been decided by the political process. Scully also found that NSW authorities "acted reasonably and within the statutory criteria correctly construed" in granting approval to the injection room.
"We'll have it open as quickly as we can," Uniting Church's Rev. Harry Herbert told the Daily Telegraph. The ruling was a "moral victory," he said. The project needed to train staff and set up payroll, he added.
The injection room is a pilot program set to run for 18 months at 66 Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross, an area of bars, clubs, cafes, adult entertainment, and a congregation of hard drug users. Staffed by registered nurses and drug and alcohol counselors during its hours of operation -- fours hours each in the morning and evening -- the center contains eight cubicles with two seats each, allowing as many as 16 people to use the facility at one time. Injectors will be provided with syringes and other injection supplies. After the 18-month trial period, state authorities will submit a report to the NSW parliament before it considers whether to continue or expand the program.
Harm reduction advocates first moved in the direction of a "safe room" for injecting by opening a non-officially approved shooting gallery, the tolerance or "T-Room" in the spring of 1999 just before the drug summit approved a trial injection room. Police raided the T-Room during the one week it was open, and it shut down just after the summit.
The injection room hit an early hurdle when its original operators, the Catholic order Sisters of Mercy, were forced to withdraw on instructions from the Pope.
The program has the support of the NSW Labor government of Bob Carr. Carr's Special Minister of State John Della Bosca pronounced the administration's position: "The government is committed to evaluating whether a medically supervised injecting room can act as a gateway to treatment, keep addicts alive and improve the general amenity of Kings Cross for residents and business," he said.
"The chamber has had its day in court," Rev. Herbert told the Sydney Morning Herald. "The judgment has ruled against them. It's time for them to let this trial go ahead."
But the chamber has not yet given up the ghost. Chamber spokesman Malcolm Duncan told reporters the chamber is considering an appeal -- it has 28 days in which to do so -- and warned of dire consequences. "Ladies and gentlemen," he told the gathered correspondents, "welcome to the petri dish. You are now in [NSW Prime Minister] Bob Carr's social experiment."
Tony Trimingham, founder of the Family Drug Support Group, and until recently a member of the National Drug Advisory Council, had a mix of emotions following the court's decision. Trimingham founded the group after his son died of a heroin overdose in 1997. "There is still a sense of frustration that it has been two years and instead of evaluating the trial we are going through these pedantics," he told the Morning Herald, "but a relief that it was a fairly emphatic decision and now a sense of let's get on with it," he said.
The T-Room was not the only Kings Cross drug normalization attempt shut down by police in 1999. Police also closed a cafe that sold cannabis as well as coffee and turned a blind eye to smoking on the premises. Under a proposed bill by Green Party parliamentarian Lee Rhiannon, such establishments would become legal in NSW.
The provision, part of a larger Green drug reform package still being formulated, is in part a reaction to the government's decision to support the injection room, Rhiannon told the Canberra Times. "While we support the heroin injecting room, it's a bit of a double standard to ignore the users of other drugs," she said. She added that it did not make sense for people to be able to inject legally while cannabis users still faced prosecution.