The Andrews Labor government in Victoria has authorised a limited trial of a safe injecting facility in North Richmond. This is a welcome reversal of their long-held opposition to any such facility. It comes after years of calls from local residents for change, including a rally in August attended by more than 600 people.
The new trial will be held at the North Richmond Health Service. Shamefully, the government’s bill authorising the trial also contains an unnecessary ban on any other such facility operating anywhere in the state. This provision will limit the program’s effectiveness. There is a need to keep fighting to extend the life of the safe injecting facility beyond the two years mandated in this bill, to demand that it be expanded to provide other services – including dealing with drugs beyond heroin, and to set up more of these facilities.
Safe injecting facilities reduce the risk of heroin overdoses and increase access to support services and emergency medical treatment, meaning fewer deaths and better long-term outcomes for those suffering drug addiction.
The Socialist Party has called for these facilities for years. In 1999 we called public rallies and established the Community Campaign for Heroin Reform. This campaign demanded the creation of a safe injecting facility in Collingwood to combat drug deaths.
With the Greens winning the seat of Northcote in the recent by-election, and with them posing a threat to the Victorian Labor Party in Brunswick and Richmond, it may be possible to drag Labor to the left on this issue with sufficient community pressure.
Currently the only safe injecting facility in Australia is the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in Kings Cross, Sydney. Since being set up in 2001, the MSIC has led directly to a reduction in overdoses and emergency calls for ambulances, as well as a reduction in crime rates and the number of needles littering the streets. These centres should no longer be seen as ‘trials’, but as essential services for the sake of public health and safety.
Despite the unchallenged fact that these centres improve their communities, there are less than a hundred of them worldwide. Both the Labor Party and the Liberals have steadfastly opposed them up to now. With the new trial being approved, the Liberals and Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle have reiterated their opposition to these life-saving programs.
Socialists should stand for the decriminalisation of illicit drugs, as outlawing these drugs does nothing but compound the problems they are linked to. Criminalisation punishes people for falling under the sway of addictions. It places lives in danger, as people have been known to avoid medical treatment out of fear of arrest.
It also criminalises the large number of working people who seek to use drugs in a safer manner, and it creates an unregulated black market that dispenses drugs with dangerous additives. When pill-testing kits are developed to try to defend people against this black market, governments then work to ban pill testing and introduce police operations – such as the ironically named “Operation Safenight” in Victoria – that force drug users back into less safe situations.
Instead of criminalisation, we should fight for the regulation and public control of drug manufacturing. This is necessary for the sake of safety and to wipe out the violence and exploitation associated with the black market.
Investment in healthcare, education and other services are essential to combat addiction, but ultimately addiction is an issue born from social isolation and alienation. We need to fight for a decent standard of living for everyone, and an inclusive, truly democratic society that not only provides adequate mental health services, but is based on mutual support and human solidarity. This will only be possible by challenging the basis of capitalism itself. Only a socialist society can finally address the underlying basis for addiction.
By David Elliott