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Why there’s no legal barrier to a Melbourne drug injecting room, despite political setbacks

Medically supervised injecting facilities can prevent overdoses turning into a medical emergency. So why has progress in Victoria stalled? from www.shutterstock.com

Why there’s no legal barrier to a Melbourne drug injecting room, despite political setbacks

Drug injecting rooms have made news this week following a coroner’s recommendation to set up a trial of a supervised injecting facility in the Melbourne suburb of North Richmond.

Despite opposition from Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Health Minister Martin Foley, there are no legal reasons to prevent one from being set up.

And despite media reports, such a facility would not “legalise drugs”. Rather, there are legal options to set up what the coroner described as an “essential intervention” that would likely save lives and prevent further overdoses.

How can a drug injecting room be legal?

Australia already has a legal supervised injecting facility, the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, in Sydney’s King’s Cross. This is one of about 90 such facilities around the world, mostly in Europe.

A private member’s bill before the parliament proposes an 18-month trial of a supervised injecting facility. This would need similar law reform in Victoria to the types of reforms that occurred in New South Wales before the Sydney facility opened. If passed, the law would provide a licence for the Melbourne facility to operate under a series of strict conditions.

People who use the facility would need to be exempt from prosecution for being in possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, and exempt from being prosecuted for using those drugs.

This exemption would apply to a designated area – immediately around the facility – to allow people using the service to get in and out of it without arrest. There would be nothing unusual about such an approach; most facilities around the world operate with similar exemptions.

Part of wider harm reduction

Many people who oppose supervised drug injecting facilities do so out of fear they undermine Australia’s criminal justice system.

One commentator argued the proposal was an “appalling idea” that encouraged breaches of the law and sent mixed messages about the legality of drugs:

While harmful drugs remain illegal, there’s no sound way society can tolerate a government-subsidised facility in which people are permitted to ingest them. Facilities like the one suggested for North Richmond, would force Victoria Police to ignore some of the important laws they’ve taken a serious oath to uphold.

There is a flaw in this argument. Australia’s National Drug Strategy involves measures aimed at reducing the demand for, and supply of, drugs. The strategy also recognises it is not possible to eradicate all drug use, and so it encourages harm reduction.

A supervised injecting facility would be yet another harm reduction measure.

Australia already has a suite of measures aimed at reducing harms from drug use. This includes a national network of needle and syringe programs for people who use drugs to access clean needles, the benefits of which have been widely reported.

Australia was a pioneer of harm reduction measures like these. Such measures are now rightly acknowledged as a vital part of our national drug strategy. A supervised drug injection facility that offers support and access to other health services for people who use drugs is not all that different.

At odds with the evidence

Political opposition to a supervised drug injecting facility in Victoria is at odds with evidence finding they bring health, social and economic benefits to the community.

For example, such facilities are often a gateway for connecting marginalised and disadvantaged people to vital health care and other support services. This includes, for those who want it, alcohol and drug treatment services.

Most importantly, supervised drug injection facilities around the world have prevented many fatal drug overdoses. And Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre has overseen nearly one million injections and managed over 6,000 overdoses without a single death.

Calls for a such a facility in Melbourne have also received high-profile support from doctors’ groups and former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, as well as from local traders and residents.

We need to act now

Law reform is simple, necessary and urgent if we are to prevent further overdoses. So, while there are drug overdoses, the issue will remain on the political agenda.

As well as the private member’s bill, drug law reform is the subject of a Victorian parliamentary inquiry, due to report in March 2018.

The Victorian government needs to reconsider its position and implement the coroner’s recommendation without delay.

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