On May 6, the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Room in Kings Cross celebrated its 15th anniversary:
That’s 15 years saving lives;
15 years providing front-line services at the vanguard of medical practice;
15 years transforming the debate about illicit drug use.
I was lucky enough to visit the Centre last month and to be shown around by Medical Director, Dr Marianne Jauncy.
Marianne is a formidable woman:- a doctor driven by conviction, compassion and a profound understanding of what is at stake for both drug consumers and the wider community.
I met staff, learned more about the facilities and services on offer, and had the privilege of hearing from drug consumers about what it means to have harm-minimisation on the political agenda.
The stories I heard that day will stay with me the rest of my life: They were stories of devastating sadness and loss; Stories of profound caring and optimism, too.
For those who experience chronic drug use and addiction, the Centre not only provides treatment and vital medical support, it is also a source of respect and dignity.
What drug users told me was that’s it’s often the only place they’re ever treated like that - with respect and dignity.
As members of this House will know, the Centre began in 2001 on a trial basis following a highly contested public debate about illicit drugs.
That debate was sparked by images of a young boy on the front page of the Sun Herald injecting heroin on a Redfern street.
The photo spurred the community into action, leading to Premier Bob Carr’s 1999 NSW Drug Summit, which brought medical experts, community leaders and politicians together to find real solutions to complex problems.
One of the key results of that summit was a trial for the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.
Dr Ingrid van Beek describes the moment the resolution passed that advanced the cause of the Centre:
“After several horrendous months, when support for all harm reduction efforts had seemed to wane, we were now on Cloud Nine, with high hopes for the future.”
Under Dr van Beek’s visionary leadership, the Centre opened and the trial status was removed in 2010, making it a permanent fixture in the NSW health landscape.
While initially, the operation of the Centre was highly politicised and controversial, the evidence continues to vindicate its approach.
The numbers speak for themselves. A 2010 KPMG Report for NSW Health found that in its first ten years:
- The Centre successfully targeted marginalised and vulnerable people, 40% of whom had never had any prior interaction with drug treatment services;
- The Centre made 8,508 referrals to other services, half of which was for drug treatment; and
- The Centre managed 3,426 overdoses with no deaths.
We can only guess how many of those overdoses would have resulted in death had the Centre not been in operation.
The Centre also provides information on trends in drug consumption and tracks the rise and fall in popularity of particular drugs, which best inform our health and law and order response.
The Centre is a shining example of how harm minimisation works in practice.
It was opened and continues to be run by Uniting.
And I welcome and join the Uniting Church of Australia in its recent brave and progressive call for:
- Increased investment in harm reduction and demand reduction strategies; and
- Further measures to decriminalise individual possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.
I welcome a Uniting campaign that will call on government leaders and policy makers to rethink their stance on illegal drugs – to one based on compassion and to join together with the legal and medical community to argue the case for decriminalisation.
Fifteen years ago, it took immense bravery for the Church, doctors, social workers, community leaders and yes – politicians – who faced a problem which seemed insurmountable, considered the evidence and made the Centre a reality.
Today, it also takes immense bravery for a drug consumer to walk through those doors.
For vulnerable people who have often only had negative interactions with authority figures, it can be a daunting prospect.
What they find inside is dignity, respect, medical expertise and compassion.
They are greeted with a smile and supported with a sense of shared humanity.
Thank you to all the staff of our Medically Supervised Injecting Centre for your leadership over fifteen years.