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Should we introduce safe injecting rooms?

The war on drugs by the government has been waged for decades. However, there’s now a growing support for harm minimisation, and swelling viewpoint that addiction is a disease that needs to be treated, rather than being viewed as a criminal problem. With over 170 deaths caused by heroin overdoses in 2016, and a significant amount of those occurring in the streets of Richmond and Abbotsford alone, the call for the implementation of a safe injecting room trial in the area has never been stronger.

Has it been trialled before?

Safe injecting rooms (SIR) have been introduced in cities around the world with great success. Advocates point to the SIR in Sydney’s Kings Cross as a prime example of viability and effectiveness of the rooms here in Australia. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews acknowledges the need to do more to help drug addicts and community issues, yet is vocally opposed to SIRs.

Users and the community

Dr Matthew Dunn, Senior Lecturer from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health, says the perception that these centres encourage drug use or pose a risk to the community is unfounded. ‘There is some evidence to suggest that safe injecting rooms may reduce drug-related crime in areas where they operate. Importantly, there is also a reduction in drug-related paraphernalia such as used needles being discarded in public places.’

In addition to community advantages, users themselves benefit, as Dr Dunn says there is a body of evidence that says those who inject in public places are at higher risk at rushing their injection and potentially overdosing. ‘A medically supervised injecting centre removes that element of rushing to use the drug, and therefore the harm,’ Dr Dunn says. One of the major benefits of SIRs is that if someone overdoses, trained medical professionals are there to save their life, whereas a user may die if injecting in a public place. ‘In fact, no one has ever died in a medically supervised injecting centre anywhere in the world,’ Dr Dunn explains.

'There is some evidence to suggest that safe injecting rooms may reduce drug-related crime in areas where they operate.'

Dr Matthew Dunn,
Deakin University

Will it save lives?

Given the amount of heroin related overdoses in Victoria in 2016, Dr Dunn is steadfast in his stance that a SIR in Melbourne would save lives, not promote drug use. ‘Medically supervised injecting centres save lives, and this is a fact,’ Dr Dunn says.

Fellow Deakin academic Prof Peter Miller, a director of the Deakin Centre for Drug, Alcohol and Addiction Research echoes many of Dr Dunn’s sentiments. ‘SIRs take a lot of injecting off the streets,’ says Prof Miller, ‘Research from around the world has shown huge improvement for local community amenities’. The benefits of SIRs for the community is what’s often spoken about, yet some worry about the safety of users. Prof Miller says there is little reason to. ‘There are no risks we have seen in all of the variations from around the world.’

Benefits for users

One of the biggest benefits that SIRs offer to those using them is access that drug users have to clean equipment, which drastically reduces the chances of contracting infectious diseases or overdosing. While in addition they have access to trained medical staff. ‘There are a range of benefits of having daily interaction with health professionals, allowing relationship development and greater health monitoring,’ says Prof Miller, ‘this helps to engage users in society and their own health, which can assist them seeking further treatment’. He says it’s important to remember that addiction takes a lifetime to develop and recovery often takes decades and on average, nine attempts to quit.

‘Punitive measures have never worked and lead to more deaths in users, more crime in the community and a more scared local population. Helping people through engagement has a huge body of evidence and the fact we don’t have them in Victoria puts us decades behind Sydney in responding to the issue of addiction compassionately and making out streets safer for users and the community,’ Prof Miller says.

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Dr Matthew Dunn
Dr Matthew Dunn

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Health,
School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University
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Prof Peter Miller
Prof Peter Miller

Faculty of Health, School of Psychology,
Deakin University
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