Skyrocketing heroin overdoses in Richmond and mounting public pressure has pushed Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to flip on an election promise and green light the trial of a medically supervised injecting room in the area.
In 2016, Richmond was the site of 34 fatal overdoses—around a fifth of the total heroin fatalities for the whole state. Much of this year has seen ambulances services, doctors, health centre, and charities have been pleading with the Premier to take action.
Set to launch in June 2018, the Richmond trial will be Australia's second medically supervised injecting centre, after Sydney's Kings Cross centre, which opened in 2001. Operated in more than 58 cities around the world, these are spaces where drug users can inject under the supervision of trained medical staff—in an effort to reduce the spread of disease and the number of deadly overdoses.
All the evidence from Kings Cross suggests its centre achieved that and more.
In the late 1990s, Kings Cross was ground zero for Australian heroin deaths. A glut of heroin spiked Australia's drug death rate to 9.2 deaths per 100,000 people—the highest it's ever been. And many of these deaths were young men in Sydney, in their 20s, shooting up heroin.
Since the medically supervised injecting centre opened its doors, nearly a million injections have been overseen inside without a single fatal overdose. Ambulance call outs to the Cross dropped by 80 percent as well, and discarded needles scattered are no longer a commonality around the area.
Running out of the North Richmond Community Health Centre, it's hoped Victoria's two-year trial will have a similar dramatic effect on Richmond. "For too long, people have been dying on the streets of North Richmond," says North Richmond Community Health CEO Demos Krouskos. The centre has been operating a needle exchange program for nearly 20 years, but it's long been obvious that's not enough.
"Providing clean injecting equipment has helped protect the community from the spread of viruses like Hepatitis C and HIV," explains Krouskos. "But we've always had to give people equipment and then send them away, knowing many people are likely to inject on the street, and even die."
The announcement comes as part of a plan to rapidly scale up Victoria's response to both heroin and ice. Premier Andrews also announced that 100 new residential rehab beds would be opened by March 2018, to address the state's long waiting list for public rehab places.
However, there's been no word on whether the government plans to accept coroner Jacqui Hawkins' other recommendation—levelled earlier this year in the wake of a heroin death in a Richmond restaurant—that naloxone should be more widely available in the state. The drug, known as a heroin antidote, can immediately stop and reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, drastically reducing the chance of death. VICE has contacted Daniel Andrews' office for further details.
More as this story develops.