Rose Brennan recently argued in the Daily Telegraph that support is growing in NSW for the establishment of additional Drug Consumption Rooms. She made it clear that this soaring support is not just coming from ‘the usual suspects’. Brennan attributed the increase in support to the ever-expanding growth in the drug market and the rise in drug-related problems. This article was remarkable in several respects.
The Daily Telegraph and other News Corp newspapers in Australia have been vigorously campaigning for a ‘War on Drugs’ approach for many decades. Despite the initial headline “Secret Push For Junkie Centres”, Brennan changed the headline to “NSW’s rise in illegal drug use prompts calls for injection rooms”, which is far less stigmatic. Brennan should be commended for largely avoiding the stigmatising and pejorative language that has been used for so long to demonise people who use drugs and their families. Nonetheless, it would have been better if Brennan did not refer to people who use drugs as addicts. As noted in our Guidelines for Journalists, such language stigmatises an already marginalised group and the internalisation of this language can led to people who are dependent on drugs being less likely to engage in health services and can also exacerbate their use of drugs. Further, since not many people experience drug dependence, such language perpetuates the negative attitudes towards people who use drugs among the broader community.
Brennan avoided the usual demand for ever-more punishment and even greater reliance on tougher law enforcement strategies. Of course it is hard to try and drum up support for the War on Drugs when this approach has so manifestly failed. In 2014, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott acknowledged that “[the war on drugs] is … not a war we will ever finally win. The war on drugs is a war you can lose.” Several retired and serving state Police Commissioners have accepted publicly that ‘we cannot arrest and imprison our way out of our illicit drug problems’. Support is also growing in Melbourne for the establishment of at least one Drug Consumption Room.
The Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) was opened in May 2001 in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Run as part of the Uniting Church, It has been an outstanding success. A dozen or more independent reports have evaluated the MSIC and concluded that it has been hugely successful and produced negligible ‘collateral damage’. It saves more dollars than it costs to run. The MSIC has always enjoyed huge support from local residents and local businesses as well as the local police. Yet despite 16 successful years of operation, it is still the only Drug Consumption Room in the country.
During those 16 years, Australian governments have continued to rain gold bars down on drug law enforcement with only minimal evidence of benefit and much evidence of serious unintended negative consequences. However, what we are now seeing in Australia is a slow but relentless retreat from the War on Drugs. This trend has already been proceeding in many other countries for some years. There is a growing recognition that the War on Drugs in recent decades has been an expensive and counter-productive failure with a soaring and more dangerous drug market and ever increasing deaths, disease, crime, corruption and violence. What is needed is more pragmatic and less ideological response to the drug problem. It is not drug use per se that should be the target of drug policy but the harm that drugs and drug policy produce. We should aim to re-integrate back into the community people who use drugs and struggle with drug problems, helping them to lead normal and useful lives. The threshold step needed is re-defining drugs as primarily a health and social problem rather than just a criminal justice issue.
There are now about 100 Drug Consumption Rooms in almost a dozen countries around the world, with many more likely to open in the next few years. New Drug Consumption Rooms in Europe are designed to allow people to either inject their drugs or (in a separate room) inhale drug vapour. Australia should adopt this approach in future Drug Consumption Rooms established across the nation. In Europe, many services are also available for people using these centres. People who use drugs and attend these centres can have a shower, shampoo their hair, wash their clothes, eat cheap and nutritious food, hang out with their friends and even start learning some simple skills which will help them find a job. Every encouragement is provided to help people using these centres get assistance for their drug problems and improve their health and well-being.
Many people have visited the MSIC in Kings Cross to see how the centre works and what it achieves. The overwhelming majority leave enormously impressed by the great work the centre does and moved by the dedication and commitment of the wonderful staff. Mr Jeff Kennett, former Premier of Victoria, visited the MSIC a year or so and wrote glowing articles in the Melbourne media about his visit. Critics claim that Drug Consumption Rooms ‘send the wrong message’ but have not been able to produce any evidence to support their claim.
Australia probably needs at least a dozen or so Drug Consumption Rooms. These Drug Consumption Rooms are not needed in Toorak or Double Bay but only in those parts of the country where a large drug market adversely affects local residents and businesses and where the local community and police strongly support opening such a centre.
We should fully respect the human rights of people who use drugs, and focus on improving the health and well-being of people who use drugs, their families and communities. Most of the people who visit Drug Consumption Rooms have appalling physical and mental health, are very isolated, often homeless and rarely attend any other health or social facility. They are much worse off than the average person who uses drugs. Attracting people who use drugs to attend Drug Consumption Rooms is often the start of a difficult but rewarding process of re-integration with the community.
Dr. Alex Wodak AM, President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation & Director, Australia21