Why Does Australia Still Have Only One Supervised Injecting Room?

The one in Kings Cross has ended overdoses and curbed crime, but there's resistance to open any more, anywhere

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Jan 27 2016, 2:38am

Inside the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre. All images via the MSIC.

The Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) has been a resounding success. When it was opened in May 2001 the surrounding area, Kings Cross, had the highest concentration of overdoses in Australia. But 10 years later, in 2011, ambulance call-outs to the Cross were down 80 percent, while reports of public injecting and the amount of publicly discarded needles had halved. In the local area, robbery and property offences had fallen, overdoses had decreased, while there was no increase in drug offences.

Turns out the MSIC was a really good idea. Yet in the face of all this overwhelming evidence, it's still Australia's only supervised injecting room.

Medical director of the MSIC, Dr Marianne Jauncey puts this down to the "moral outrage and indignation" surrounding the topic of injecting drug use in this country. "There's never been a fatality from overdose in any of the 90-odd centres operating around the world," she explained, highlighting that it's not for a lack of returns that Australia isn't building more.

When you speak with Jauncey it's obvious how passionate she is about the centre. And why not? She witnesses the benefits this service is providing to some of "the most marginalised and disenfranchised" members of the community every day. As she sees it, the clinic takes the next logical step from simply supplying sterile injecting equipment, to actually preventing deaths. "It's about saying we care about you and your health and we don't want you to overdose," she said.

Jeff Kennett (far right) visiting staff at the MSIC

Over recent months, renewed calls have been made to open a supervised injecting room in Victoria. Former Victorian state premier Jeff Kennett is a key advocate. Now the chairman of mental health organisation beyondblue, Kennett explains that his support is based on the evidence gained by the MSIC, which was presented to him when he visited in early 2015.

Kennett told VICE that people attending the MSIC often have multiple issues, ranging from mental illness to homelessness. "They may be individuals who are at the very lowest end of the economic chain," he explained. "And they're often victims of violence."

Kennett argues that if you visit MSIC today the benefits for the local Kings Cross community are obvious. "The place is cleaner," he says simply, which is why there's "a need in Victoria for at least one [injecting facility]. And there are two or three municipalities that are interested in being the host of such a facility."

One of these municipalities is the City of Yarra. In May 2011, the local council voted six to one in favour of trialling a supervised injecting room. However, then state premier Ted Baillieu rejected the idea. So today, executive officer of the Yarra Drug and Health Forum (YDHF) Greg Denham describes a situation where the streets of North Richmond are still awash with drugs, along with the discarded equipment that comes along.

The YDHF has been campaigning for a North Richmond injecting room for over a decade. "The community came to us and said, 'Look we don't want to live with this anymore,'" Denham recalled. The former Victorian police senior sergeant stressed that the "saturation policing" of the local area hasn't worked. And neither has simply presenting the evidence for an injecting centre.

Richard Branson weighed in on the debate late last year. Here he is at the MSIC.

A major barrier that needs to be addressed is the stigma surrounding injecting drug use and people's unwillingness to deal with the issue openly. And it's the attitude of some of the local business community that's creating major opposition to establishing a local injecting room. "They just want the problem to go away and we've explained to them it isn't going to," Denham said.

In Kings Cross, some business owners have even become strident supporters for the cause. One such person is Adrian Bartels, who for the past 16 years has operated Bartels Property Finance in the Kings Cross/Potts Point area. He's also a local resident, who remembers when there were "ambulances out all night" and there'd "be injecting drug users all over the place."

Bartels thinks North Richmond business owners have to realise that providing a medically supervised centre for people who inject drugs is beneficial for the community as a whole. "Then you don't have people dying and passed out on the streets," he said. "It can only be good for the area."

A look inside the individual cubicles—two chairs and a bin.

In the end though, it's really about preventing individual deaths. Tracey has been attending the MSIC since it opened in 2001. When she shared her story with VICE, the 45-year-old disability support pensioner had just watched nurses at the centre save her partner's life. "He just stopped breathing. The oxygen level in his blood went down so low that they had to put oxygen on him," she recounted. "And he slowly came around."

Tracey's partner survived because of forward thinking policies. Additionally they were both able to access services that help IV drug users long term, instead of just getting them off the street temporarily. As the director of the MSIC, Dr Marianne Jauncey outlined, the centre acts as a gateway to actual solutions.

"Amongst our frequent attendees, over two thirds have actually accepted our offers of assistance and referrals into other drug treatments, and health and mental welfare services," she said.

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