Australia: First Injection Room Opens in Sydney as West Australia Eyes Similar Plan 5/11/01

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As of May 6, Australia's first legal heroin injecting room is open for business. The center, located in Sydney's Kings Cross neighborhood and operated by the Uniting Church in an effort to prevent drug overdose deaths, overcame two years of political and legal hurdles to open. (See our most recent coverage at online.)

According to Australian press reports, business has been slow -- due in part to numerous television crews outside the site's doors. Just as in quantum physics the act of observing effects the phenomenon observed, so too in the world of media. Camera-shy drug users stayed out of the glare of the bright lights.

The center's medical director, Dr. Ingrid van Beek, told the Daily Telegraph the center had warned potential clients of the media presence. "We felt under those circumstances it was important to inform people ahead of time that if they did enter the premises it was likely they would be photographed," she said.

As of Tuesday only 11 injection drug users had used the facility. "A handful of drug users made use of the center last night and this will undoubtedly increase in the weeks ahead, especially when the media attention wanes," predicted Uniting Church's Reverend Harry Herbert at mid-week.

Still, center spokesman Pat Kennedy told the Australia Wire, the center has already seen its first successful referral. Reporting on the center's first night of operation, Kennedy noted, "It was a great opportunity for a couple of people who have come into the doors to seek counseling by professionals," he said. "At least one took the opportunity to be referred to professional services."

According to the Daily Telegraph, that person was a 20-year-old male who shot up at the center Sunday night and returned the next day to be referred to a local detox center for buprenorphine treatment.

"This is not just about a place where people come to inject in a supervised area, it also allows them to seek counseling," Kennedy said.

Open from 10:00am to 2:00pm and 6:00pm to 10:00pm daily, the center is staffed by registered nurses and drug and alcohol counselors. It contains eight two-seat cubicles which can theoretically serve up to 200 injectors per day. The center provides clean syringes and injection materials.

But even as the center begins to draw clients, the toll of heroin overdoses and the clamor of political opposition continue. The Daily Telegraph reported that seven overdoses had occurred within 200 meters of the center since it opened over the weekend. The Kings Cross area accounts for about one-fifth of all heroin overdose deaths in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, with about 100 overdose deaths a year in the neighborhood.

The weekend overdoses were grist for the mill for long-time opponents of the center. "I was there and saw two ambulance officers, after the place had been closed, dealing with an overdose -- what is the point?" demanded an outraged if not entirely logical representative of the Kings Cross Chamber of Commerce.

New South Wales opposition National Party leader Kerry Chikarovski took the opportunity to tell ABC Radio that the opening of the injection room marked a sad day for Sydney. "I've said all along that personally I believe the money that's been involved in the project would be better spent on rehabilitation, getting people off drugs, rather than helping them continue with their addiction," she said.

Still, the center's leaders were undaunted. While the center sought to reduce overdose deaths, it could not prevent all of them, Reverend Herbert told the Australia Wire. And in contrast to Chikarovski, Herbert called the center's opening "a great day."

West Australia could be next, according to state Health Minister Bob Kucera. In announcing a state drug summit for August earlier this week, he told reporters safe injecting rooms, heroin trials, and marijuana legalization would all be on the agenda. While carefully refraining from stating a position on injecting rooms, he told the West Australian they needed to be part of the discussion.

"I've got to say that after the last 30-odd years of working in the area we haven't gone a long way in some places," said the former assistant police commissioner. "Obviously, there will be some political issues that are going to be challenging for us, but they will also be challenging for the opposition parties and the community. Rather than me specifically state what the policies are, I would rather leave that open at this stage," he said.

Kucera told reporters the summit would address the social factors underlying drug use, prevention and intervention, treatment, and law enforcement issues. He said 80 delegates would represent the community at large and 20 would represent stakeholders, such as public health groups.

Tamara Speed, representing the West Australia Users' Association, told the West Australian that drug users need to be heard at the summit and that authorities needed to confront drug use as a phenomenon to be managed, not eradicated. "We need to look at things like treatment options," she said. "There is a need in the city for a safe injecting room because there are people injecting in unsafe and unhygienic conditions, so for those people it is a real issue."

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Issue #185, 5/11/01 Editorial: People of All Shapes and Sizes | With DEA Administrator Nomination, Bush Puts a Hardline Drug Policy Troika in Place | DEA Internal Report on Supersnitch: Agency Finds Itself Not Guilty | US Slapped Down at UN, Removed from Human Rights, Drug Panels, Congress Threatens to Take Ball and Go Home | Louisiana Legislators Act to Reduce Drug Sentences as Prisons Bulge, Alabama Prison Crisis Going Un-addressed This Year | Australia: First Injection Room Opens in Sydney as West Australia Eyes Similar Plan | Canada's Top Drug Cop Calls for Look at Injection Rooms | SSDP Making Waves: Madison, Hampshire, Amherst SSDPer Stages Mock Coffee Prohibition, Other Events | Smoke-Ins, Hempfests and Mass Protests: Movement Makers or Risky Distractions? | The Reformer's Calendar
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