DRUGS: by Collis ParrettNews Weekly
ACT pulls back from legalised heroin injecting room
, March 13, 2004
Collis Parrett, the Australian Family Association's ACT Drug Policy Analyst, formerly worked in the drugs area of the Commonwealth Health Department.
He has campaigned against the harm minimisation approach to drugs in the ACT for many years, particularly following the passing by the ACT Legislative Assembly of the Supervised Injecting Place Trial Act 1999 (No.90) and subsequent amendments. The campaign has achieved some success.Over the period 2001-2003 there was sustained pressure - often from drug law reform organisations - to open a heroin injecting room, officially titled a Supervised Injecting Place (SIP) in Canberra, the claims being that it would save lives, etc.
This push for SIPs and heroin trials must be seen against the background of the 18 year old failed national drug strategy of harm minimisation (HM), which places a high priority on drug maintenance as a form of treatment, e.g., the methadone maintenance program, and significantly lower priority on achieving abstinence, or opiate-free lives.
Cardinal public health principles governing drug epidemics demand that in each of the prevention areas, i.e., primary, secondary and tertiary prevention, the fundamental aim must be to reduce the number of drug users and potential users.
You may conclude this is only common sense - but if a country does not have a drug policy which heavily prioritises the aim of abstinence from illegal drugs, we must have, in my opinion, ever increasing numbers of drug users.
Also, a number who support harm minimisation and who wanted a supervised injecting room also hold an ideological position which actively supports removal of criminal sanctions for the personal use of illegal drugs.
This stand cannot reasonably be seen as compatible with the top prioritisation of drug use prevention and its true corollary - rapidly increasing numbers of drug-free lives.
One can only surmise to what extent this ideology may reside in and influence harm minimisation and its treatments/programs - and I make no judgement on this.
In the later stage of my opposition to a supervised injection program, I was greatly assisted by a very incisive analysis from Dr Reece and Mr Christian of the evaluation of the Kings Cross trial outcomes.
The analysis is entitled "Analysis of Kings Cross Injecting Room Report" (September 2003).
It should be noted here that after the release of the official evaluation outcomes of the King's Cross facility, all jurisdictions in Australia - with the exception of the ACT - had either decided or confirmed they would not allow injecting rooms.
In his own words, Mr Christian concluded that his and Dr Reece's analysis demonstrated "the overwhelming failure of the Centre".
The main conclusions of the analysis were:
(i) that the King's Cross room was in breach of International Conventions against illicit drug use, a stand supported by the International Narcotic Control Board;
(ii) statistically the King's Cross room could not claim to have saved one life, let alone the six they did claim;
(iii) overdoses in the King's Cross area were 36 times less than in the injecting room itself; and
(iv) no improvement in almost every success/failure indicator, i.e., (a) no evidence the injecting room reduced the number of overdose deaths in the area - p.60; ambulance overdose attendances in the area - no improvement - p.60 ; overdose presentations at hospital emergency wards - no improvement - p.60 ; notifications of newly-diagnosed Hep C: Darlinghurst/Surry Hills - worse by 11% per year (in line with the Hep C epidemic trend Australia-wide despite presence of the injecting room); increased drug trafficking on nearby Kings Cross Station; and greatly increased drug trafficking in the vicinity of the centre was highlighted about 13 months after the initial date of the trial's completion (although it was extended) when the Local Area Police Commander was reported as saying around 800 heroin deals are occurring daily and that police officers are virtually powerless (presumably under current laws) to prevent them (Sun-Herald
, December 14, 2003, pp. 1,10,11).
There are half a dozen other items, but space does not allow listing all here.
I presented the analysis to the Chief Minister and the Minister for Health in the last quarter of 2003 when a government decision was almost due.
I received a cordial response which informed me that the Chief Minister would receive advice from a drugs advisory council and that factors other than the King's Cross report outcomes would be taken into account in reaching a decision.
This wasn't definitive, so I replied promptly in writing that while receiving advice from the council was obviously procedural, there was one piece of advice it could not give the Chief Minister.
That was that he should break his promise to ACT residents not to approve a supervised injecting facility unless the anticipated outcomes were positive, and beyond reasonable doubt to that effect.
It is not suggested here that the council did, or would have, so advised the Chief Minister.
A very short time later (just before Christmas 2003), the Government announced within a collection of decisions that a heroin injection facility would not proceed, as it had lost its priority in the funding mix.
This may be so, but at times a wink is as good as a nudge, and I for one am quite willing to suggest that the Chief Minister's main reason for not approving a heroin injecting room in the ACTwas his honesty in not wishing to be seen to be going back on his word.
That he may not have had too much room to manoeuvre in this context can be left open for discussion at another time.
As I write these last few lines, I have just received a letter from the Chief Minister, John Stanhope MLA, which in part says (paraphrasing) that the heroin injecting room issue will be monitored, and may be revisited in the future if circumstances warrant it.
In view of all the above negatives, I am responding - seeking the major ingredients which could in any way conceivably "warrant" a revisit, considering as one factor only that the Federal Leader of the Opposition has rejected any increase in injecting rooms.
I would emphasise that none of what I have said should be taken as a reflection on the injecting room staff or the evaluators. I am, and have been, concerned with outcomes.