Australia is in the middle of a heroin epidemic. One response to this problem has been the proposal of some communities to establish heroin injecting rooms. It is claimed this will help heroin reduce the number of overdose deaths and get users off the streets. Premier-elect Dr Gallop has already said he is interested in exploring the idea.
However, those lobbying the hardest for injecting room are often skilled in the use of misleading information and deceptive arguments. The truth is, there is no real solid evidence for any of their claims.
Take for example the way the debate is so often presented by injecting room advocates: "What would you prefer, having addicts shoot up in dangerous, dirty back alleys or have addicts shoot up in clean, medically-supervised rooms?" Of course if these are the only two options, the latter is to be preferred. But this is a false dilemma. There is a third option: not shooting up at all. Shooting galleries do nothing to encourage addicts to get off drugs. Consider some other misleading claims:
* "No one has died in a European safe-injecting room." This is a completely misleading figure. If an addict shoots up in a "safe" injecting room, steps outside and falls over dead, this is not counted in the figures because only deaths within the facilities, not anywhere else, are recorded.
* "We need to stop all these deaths on the streets." More misinformation. The overwhelming majority of heroin deaths take place in the home, not in the streets. According to figures from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, 74 per cent of over-dose deaths occurred in homes between 1996 and 1998. And of 410 cases, only 30 were due solely to heroin. Most were due to drug-cocktails: mixes of various drugs and alcohol along with the heroin.
* "Many addicts do not want treatment." So what? Many murderers do not want to stop killing. Many pedophiles do not want treatment to get them to stop molesting children. Mandatory treatment (detox and rehab) must be part of our approach. This is part of the Swedish experience and it has worked very well. Concerns of civil libertarians are misplaced here.
Whenever someone engages in dangerous behaviour which affects themselves and the rest of society, then society has a right to step in and intervene.
* "We must set up injecting rooms because this is the compassionate thing to do." This is one of the biggest furphies of all. Whenever you hear a pro-injecting room speaker, he or she is always going on about compassion. They speak of saving lives and being concerned about the addict. But the pro-injectors do not have a monopoly on compassion. Their claim to occupy the high moral ground needs to be challenged. What is really most compassionate: to keep someone enslaved to a dangerous illegal drug the rest of their life, or to get them free of addictive and deadly drugs? The aim of getting addicts drug-free is a compassionate, loving aim. What is compassionate about keeping people in chains to lethal drug addictions?
Questions about the safe injecting rooms
1) Since the stated aim of the government is to reduce heroin deaths, will injecting rooms reduce such deaths? The experts have already answered that question. They will not. As injecting room advocate Margaret Hamilton admitted in Melbourne recently: "Whatever we do will not alter the rise in heroin deaths in the foreseeable future".
2) Will this strategy control the spread of Hepatitis C which is running rampant among young injecting drug users? The evidence thus far is clear: It will not. Hepatitis C is spreading out of control with current needle-exchange programs. For example, a recent study of a Sydney needle exchange program as reported in the British Medical Journal found that there is an alarming rise in the number of Hepatitis C cases, especially among those under the age of 20.
3) What solid evidence do we have that these centres have really worked overseas? I have already mentioned the Dutch experience and the lack of any solid evidence there on the effects of injecting rooms. The Swiss experiments with heroin injection facilities have been subject to much recent scrutiny. A fairly recent investigation commissioned by the World Health Organisation found no clear evidence that such facilities had any positive effect. And a thorough study by Dr Ernst Aeschbach of evaluations of the program found no grounds for optimism.
Other questions which await some clear answers include:
4) Will the surrounding areas be declared a no-go zone by the police, with drug traffickers selling illegal drugs freely?
5) Will the staff assist people who are trying to find a vein? Pardon the indelicacy here, but when an addict’s normal veins for shooting up are so collapsed, they will try elsewhere, like in the penis or an eyeball. Will the staff help out with this?
6) If something goes wrong in the injecting room, will the client be able to sue the facility for negligence? For example, if an addict contracts Hepatitis C, can he sue because he was assisted in maintaining a dangerous mode of drug taking?
7) How will the addicts be monitored, if, like in many overseas injecting rooms, they remain anonymous?
8) What guarantees do we have that persons under the age of 18 will not have access to the facilities?
Can I suggest that we had better not open any injecting rooms until these and other questions are given some very good answers by independent authorities.
Indeed, experiments in other countries that have gone down this road need to be examined carefully. Holland is often appealed to in this debate. The name Orlando McDonald may not be well known, but should be. He is the man who introduced the concept of safe injecting rooms in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, 10 years ago. He admitted to a visitor recently that not one person has ever gotten off heroin in those ten years. Not one! In fact, addicts said that if it weren’t for all the heroin they were being supplied with by this program, they might have been off the stuff years ago.
A Melbourne man who was addicted to heroin for 14 years put it this way: "I used to pray they’d introduce heroin trials. Now I thank God they never did. It has enabled me to take the right avenue to get my life back into my hands. If there were injecting rooms or a heroin trial I might still be using heroin."
Yet that is exactly what some people want to do here. They want to supply heroin to addicts. That’s about as helpful as supplying whiskey to alcoholics. Yet that is what is being proposed here. We want to create life-long addicts. We don’t want to help these people. We want to keep them strung out for life. That policy is morally bankrupt and socially disastrous.
Dr Shane Darke of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre put it this way: "Every time you inject heroin you are taking a risk that you will die. Anyone who tells you there is a safe way to inject heroin, well that’s a lie."
Heroin is illegal because it is dangerous. Heroin is banned because it is dangerous and can kill people. It needs to stay banned. We do not need safe injecting rooms in Australia. We do not need harm minimisation as advocated here in Australia. Instead, we need a policy of harm prevention and intervention. Drug-free people do not die from overdoses. We need to get people off dangerous drugs. Addicts need treatment and rehabilitation, not a life sentence to an early grave from overdoses, Hepatitis C and AIDS.