by Isobel GawlerNews Weekly
Drugs: Needle exchange programs - the shocking reality
, November 4, 2000
Isobel Gawler, Secretary of the Drug Advisory Council of Australia, recently visited a Needle Exchange Centre in Melbourne.
I had the opportunity to visit a suburban Needle Distribution Centre (NDC) recently and to observe first hand the activities of such centres. I had previously been approached by concerned citizens in the neighbourhood and I had on another occasion wandered in the area and spoken to various groups. This commentary is the outcome of those experiences.
The NDC was situated within the premises of a Community Health centre, located in a residential street adjacent to the shopping centre, in close proximity to a railway station. The centre provides a welcoming, no penetrating questions asked, style of service to all who request needles and syringes.
The service operates on the principle of "Harm Minimisation" (i.e. the belief that all drug users and pushers should receive clean equipment on request, regardless of whether or not used needles and syringes are returned).
A client that day requested 200 needles and syringes, explaining that he needed them because a friend might visit! NDCs are generally a "no go" area for police, the theory being that the drug users might be deterred from collecting clean needles if there is a police presence. This situation effectively protects drug dealers who often quite blatantly "deal" to drug users near the NDC, knowing that they and their customers' illegal activity is protected, as the government facilitates their addiction by way of the Harm Minimisation philosophy.
The NDC shared a common waiting area with the adjoining medical centre. Information leaflets regarding HOW TO INJECT SAFELY and KNOW YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS (am I old enough?) provide advice on how to behave when "having problems with the police". These leaflets are available in the room where the needles and syringes are distributed.
The NDC clients enter the reception area and are recognised by their ill-at-ease manner to be wanting injecting equipment.
On entering the NDC, the clients are told to help themselves to supplies. They were asked if they were "using safely," to which they invariably replied "yes."
A teenage pregnant girl came to collect needles and syringes. She too said that she was using safely, even though she was told that it would be safer for the baby if she was on a methadone programme. Other clients wandered in and out. Some looked healthy and in the early stages of drug use, whereas others looked emaciated and conspicuously unwell.
I suggested to the manager of the Centre that it would be a good policy to offer testing for Hepatitis C to the NDC clients, not only for the sake of health but to discover the efficacy of the needle and syringe distribution programme. She replied that the testing would be an invasion of privacy and if the client suspected that he or she was infected with the hepatitis virus, they would seek testing from the medical centre.
Some of the clients seemed to be teenage school pupils. The manager did not suggest to any of the clients that they should seek treatment for their drug addiction, but told me that if the clients wanted treatment, there were brochures in the centre, which listed treatment centres. (The scarcity of available detoxication and rehabilitation centres is scandalous).
The mother of a drug-addicted teenager said that the waiting period for detox was 65 days. In order to be retained on the waiting list, it is necessary to ring before 10.30 am each day before placement. Then there is a further lengthy delay before entering rehabilitation as Victoria has very little provision of desperately needed long term residential rehabilitation facilities.
I expressed concern about the infrequent return of needles and syringes to the centre. The manager echoed what some of the clients claimed - i.e. that "the needles and syringes were returned elsewhere or into an external bin". But the local residents say that many syringes and needles are discarded in the street by the railway line.
The rate of needle/syringe return throughout Victoria is very poor. For example, at the Footscray Needle Distribution Centre for the month of March 2000, 50,000 needles/syringes were distributed but only 17,000 were returned, leaving 33,000 unaccounted for.
The NDC facilitates the expansion of the numbers of intravenous drug users by conveniently providing the injecting equipment to use the drugs freely available from dealers nearby. The number of Footscray NDC client contacts for the month of January 2000 was 4,273 and 38,000 syringes were provided, whereas in March 2000, there were 6,754 client contacts and 50,000 syringes were distributed. This increase is promoted as a sign of success of the programmes but equally it can be identified as an indictment.
When I emerged from the NDC, I noticed that about a half of the clients I had seen inside were pacing around in the near vicinity of the NDC. I observed a small package change hands in the middle of the road, passed by a man I had not seen in the centre.
A local policeman said that residents were becoming very unhappy about the increased crime in the area since the number of clients visiting the centre had doubled during the last six months, with many people visiting the NDC from other districts, conveniently using the nearby train services.
I immediately was reminded of the proposal of the Melbourne City Council to provide vending machines in the Central Business District of Melbourne, despite the stark evidence of the suburban experiences. In Footscray, where the insidious influence of the NDC has taken effect over four years, the community of Footscray regard the NDC as a toxic industry that was foisted on an already disadvantaged community.
The NDC is conspicuously surrounded by failed or failing businesses, welfare agencies and government bureaucratic offices.
The local residents and traders complain bitterly that their once thriving businesses are failing as a result of the NDC; they believe with justification that people are increasingly afraid to shop in Footscray, fearing robbery and assault by syringe wielding drug users.
Drug use is plainly evident, with people stumbling along the street or lolling about on seating provided in the streets for shoppers. Drug users arrive at the NDC on foot, car, truck, bus or train. Footscray is a transit centre and everyone passing through is affected by the presence of the open drug trade. There is a steady stream of people going in and out of the NDC, carrying the characteristic brown paper bags.
A drug user from Albury and a drug dealer from Geelong do a deal in a nearby laneway. The drug dealer says he is in favour of injecting rooms, whereas the drug user is against them. The dealer says addiction was harder on girls, forcing them into prostitution, whereas the males support their addiction through crime.
Groups of boys who look about 13 years of age roam the streets, some gaunt from drug use. Homelessness is the outcome as ethnic and Anglo-Australian youth are alienated from their despairing families by the corrupting influence of the normalisation of the drug culture.
Residents recount the demise of their drug addicted children, sucked into the normalisation of drug use by the harm minimisation theories, the availability of drugs and peer pressure.
A parent spoke about the drug lifestyle of very young users who are between 12 and 14 years of age, who know no other lifestyle, other than growing up in the presence of the NDC. Drugs and dealing are seen by them as a lifestyle occupation. She complained: "NDCs and welfare agencies don't teach living skills and responsibilities."
When asked her opinion as to how to reduce the problem, she said the obvious: "Reduce the access to drugs by closing down the NDC; teach kids coping skills for life; give education about the effect of drugs; change drug laws to become very severe."
She continued: "Drug use in Footscray has been normalised because Footscray is a major transit centre for public transport with many school kids passing through Footscray. As a result, they accept drug use as normal; because of the constant interaction. 11-13 years is now the age of introduction to drugs. The NDC programme is futile and is indicative of the Government and its advisers giving up on drug users and the poor and marginalised.
"It is a ridiculous concept to 'use safely' because parents know that the child may die with a 'clean' needle in his/her arm."
This parent has two children, a 15-year-old boy who works for a 'pimp' in St Kilda, recording car number plates of prostitutes' customers to support his drug habit. Her daughter aged 19, dropped out of VCE because of drug use. Both children are emaciated and unwell.
People crouch in lanes while injecting drugs. The drug dealers, driving expensive cars, dressed in suits, carrying mobile phones, furtively duck down lanes to conduct their business.
Drug-affected people make no attempt to hide themselves and nod off anywhere they choose. Some collapse after overdosing on the streets. Others inject in the nearby café toilets where dealers often stash their drugs and spare boxes of needles and syringes which they obtained by courtesy of the NDC.
Drug dealers and drug users 'deal', inject and overdose routinely in the café toilet, just two doors from the NDC. The nearby butcher praised the intermittent police blitzes, but lamented the lack of adequate numbers of policemen permanently based in Footscray.
During the Olympics and the S11 demonstrations, when the police presence was reduced, crime increased dramatically. He said that the drug situation and related crime has worsened considerably since the advent of the NDC, which opened up in Footscray four years ago.
Shoppers, residents and businesses feel powerless in the face of the all-pervading influence of the Needle Distribution Centre.