Why more drug consumption rooms are a must
The tragic situation of Harriet Wran, daughter of the late NSW Labor premier, Neville Wran, recently received saturation media coverage. Spiralling problems with ice ended with Ms Wran pleading guilty to accessory after the fact of murder and robbery in company.
In the sentence hearings in court, Harriet Wran revealed the personal demons she has been fighting for many years. She will not be the last person to turn to alcohol and other drugs to get relief from personal demons only to find heaven in the short term and hell in the long term.
More than 30 years ago, Rosalyn Hawke, daughter of the Labor (then) Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, attracted considerable media as her battle with heroin became public knowledge. At the time the public were astonished drug problems could involve the child of a Prime Minister.
The serious problems of Harriet Wran now and Rosalyn Hawke then demonstrated to the community that a privileged background was no protection from serious drug problems.
While the reality is that drug problems are more common in young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds, even for young Australians from privileged backgrounds finding effective treatment for their drug problems is usually extremely difficult.
But for young Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds, drug treatment is even harder to find and when found, there are usually long queues.
The Ice Task Force recommended a much greater investment in treatment for people struggling with drug problems. It has been obvious for decades that Australian governments have been skimping on funding for drug treatment while generously funding the criminal justice system, including spending massive amounts on money on customs, police, courts, prisons and parole.
Drug treatment is slow and difficult work but there are benefits from supporting people with drug problems. In contrast, it is much harder to find significant and sustainable benefits from law enforcement approaches. Announcing responses to the Ice Task Force report on December 6, 2015, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “We cannot arrest our way to success, we need to do a lot more.”
Recently 7.30 on ABC TV described the increasing use of Drug Consumption Rooms in Switzerland and Germany. These resemble the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney’s Kings Cross but as inhalation of drugs has been slowly replacing drug injecting in Europe, the newer European “Safe Rooms” can also accommodate people who want to inhale drug vapour rather than inject drugs.
Obviously, it would be much better if addicts stopped using drugs altogether but often stopping requires many tiny “baby steps” rather than just one heroic overnight jump. The Europeans also place much more emphasis on the social re-integration of drug users by providing training in employable skills.
Drug Consumption Rooms for injecting reduce deaths and non-fatal drug overdoses. They also reduce the spread of blood-borne viral infections such as HIV and hepatitis C, increase referral to drug treatment and other health and social interventions while also improving the amenity of neighbourhoods where there is a great deal of drug dealing.
There is a lot of research, mainly from Sydney and Vancouver, confirming the substantial benefits and financial savings from Safe Rooms. Yet despite the impressive benefits and lack of significant adverse effects of Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, after 15 years Australia still has only one such centre.
It’s well and truly time we opened more Drug Consumption Rooms in our major cities and in some of our larger regional centres. New centres should also be able to handle people who inhale ice, a drug about which the community rightly remains concerned.
It is important to realise Safe Centres provide a portal for drug users to enter the drug treatment system.
Most of the people who attend Drug Consumption Rooms are severely damaged by their drug use with serious physical and mental health problems and are isolated. Most have never been anywhere near a health or social agency or if they have, not for a long time. Many are homeless and most are socially and economically disadvantaged.
Australia’s imprisonment rate is about twice that of Germany. But Germany has almost 30 Drug Consumption Rooms. As it costs almost $100,000 per prisoner per year, the additional money Germany spends on Drug Consumption Rooms helps it to achieve significant savings in prison expenditure.
Since he became Prime Minister, Turnbull has been exhorting Australians to become more agile and innovative. Given the huge amount of taxpayers’ money spent on drug law enforcement with little sign of gain, and the huge benefits of Safe Rooms, it is time that Australian governments showed some signs of nimbleness and innovation by expanding and improving alcohol and drug treatment.
At the very least, throughout Australia, we should be opening a network of Drug Consumption Rooms where they are most needed and where local communities will accept them. As rock star Kinky Friedman once remarked when running for Governor of Texas, “How hard can it be?”
Professor Ross Fitzgerald was a member of the Queensland Parole Board and the NSW State Parole Authority for 20 years. He is the author of 39 books, including his memoir ;’My name is Ross: An alcoholic’s Journey’, which is available as an e-Book and a Talking Book from Vision Australia.
The Canberra Times, July 20, 2016 & The Sydney Morning Herald online July 20, 2016