Greens MP Colleen Hartland argues for supervised injecting centre | Australian Greens

Greens MP Colleen Hartland argues for supervised injecting centre

Greens health spokesperson Colleen Hartland speaks in favour of a supervised injecting centre in the Victorian Parliament, as MPs debate a private member's bill.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017 - 10:00am
Colleen Hartland

When I come into these debates I feel like I have actually been doing this for about 25 years. I listened to Mr Jennings; I heard all of those debates from 1999 on, because living in Footscray I attended all of those public meetings about whether we should have a supervised injecting room when the street use of heroin was at its absolute worst. We got Health Works, which has made a huge difference to the community, but we never got the supervised injecting room we needed.

I think it is time to move on. It is time to be realistic about this issue, and that is why the Greens will be supporting Ms Patten's Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment (Pilot Medically Supervised Injecting Centre) Bill 2017, because it is sensible. It is about supervised injecting rooms; it is about a trial. It is a proven way to reduce harm. Supervised injecting centres save lives. When I speak to parents who have children who are severely addicted or parents whose children have died in dark back lanes on their own, they talk about how they support a supervised injecting room because it could keep or could have kept their child alive until that child was ready for rehab and until there was a bed available. The one thing I will agree with Mrs Peulich on is that we do not have enough detox beds to ensure that if someone at 8 o'clock in the morning decides that today is the day, they can ring up and be there — not the six, eight or 12-week waiting lists that we currently endure.

This bill allows for a trial of one supervised injecting centre for 18 months. It will be licensed by the government and there will be a review at the end of the trial. Let us look at some of the facts and figures. Mrs Peulich talked about there being no evidence; there is a huge amount of evidence. There were 172 heroin overdose deaths in Victoria in 2015 — a 27 per cent increase on the year before. Of those deaths, 34 happened in the City of Yarra, and this community is desperate for a supervised injecting room. I know that as soon as people hear the words 'heroin' or 'overdose' they switch off. They think that these people knew what they were in for so they deserved it. Does anybody's child deserve to die in a dark, dirty lane?

I do not believe that anybody deserves to die because they take drugs. I have worked with people who have had severe drug addictions because it is an escape from trauma, mental illness or a raft of social problems. Just consider the family that loses a child in a car accident or to a drug overdose: is one more tragic than the other? The pain and heartache experienced by these families and communities is just as harrowing.

The other numbers we cannot ignore relate to the impact this problem is having on the community. In 2015 the City of Yarra collected roughly 60 000 needles and syringes across the entire municipality. This included both those from street sweeps and those collected in syringe disposal containers — people will have seen these in many public places, and they work. Of the 60 000, 9000 were collected off the street, with around 8000 just in the North Richmond and Abbotsford areas alone. We have to remember that Victoria has been handing out clean needles for years. I can remember when the first needle exchange opened in Footscray. People said that it would be the end of the world as we knew it and we were just encouraging drug use. But what we were stopping was bloodborne viruses. If we had not had a needle exchange for the last 20 years, what would our hepatitis and HIV rates be like now?

What does not make sense to me is how we can hand someone a clean needle and then send them off into a dirty, dark lane to inject. I have never used any kind of illicit drugs. I do not drink, I do not smoke. I am quite boring — a cup of tea and a biscuit is about as exciting as it gets for me. But while I have had no personal experience, I have seen firsthand the damage done. I live in the real world; I have seen it. We just cannot say no to drugs. It does not work. People die when we ignore these problems.

When I took a walk around Richmond a few weeks ago with a number of residents who had come to me because they want a supervised injecting room, it so reminded me of Footscray 20 years ago, when street drug use was out of control. Back then I lived next to the Footscray railway station, where people would buy their drugs and come into my street to inject. Sometimes they would actually be in my front yard, and I was terrified of coming home to find someone dead on my verandah. I attended the meetings that Mr Jennings talked about at the Footscray town hall because I did not understand what a supervised injecting room was then. All I knew was that there was this desperate problem on the streets. But out of that meeting I realised that this would be one of the solutions. I became involved with a group caught Footscray Cares, and we as residents campaigned for a supervised injecting centre.

Yes, if we had got it, it would have been built near my house because I was in the hotspot, and I would have welcomed it because I would have known that I would not be coming home possibly to find someone dead on my verandah. Yes, the community was divided over that issue — I am not pretending everybody would have welcomed it — but I also think we have seen a huge change in opinion over the last 20 years. I see a lot more acceptance of the idea; I see a lot more reality about it. Part of that reality is what has happened in Sydney.

I actually listed a whole lot of things that I thought would come up in the debate. In listening to the debate today I heard that CCTV cameras would stop the dealing. No, all that is going to happen is that people will not deal or inject under the camera. They will go to that dirty back lane, and they will die because nobody will know that they are there. How can the police actually stop this when we are talking about multiple deals every day? How many police could we possibly put on the street to do that? Just say no to drugs — well, that has really worked in the last 20 years. At the end of the day, if we really care about keeping people alive and keeping drug use off the streets, we need to have a look at the evidence and talk to the experts.

There are close to 100 supervised injecting centres around the world — in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Denmark, Canada and of course here in Australia. We are actually fortunate to be able to look at Sydney's medically supervised injecting centre to see the kinds of results you could expect here in Victoria if we had a trial of a similar facility. Over the past 16 years of operation, the Sydney facility has supervised a million injections and has had zero fatalities. In Victoria there were 172 fatalities in 2015, and 34 of them were in Richmond. Again, there were no fatalities at the supervised injecting room in Sydney.

It must be heartbreaking for families who have lost loved ones to know that if they had had access to this kind of facility, they would probably be alive today and would have had the opportunity to turn their lives around. I urge members to watch the 7.30 report from last night in which they talk to families who have lost their children to heroin overdoses — ordinary families; not extraordinary, just ordinary. Both their children suffered from severe depression, and it was a form of self-medication. If they had been able to go to a supervised injecting room, they probably would not be dead now.

When the centre opened in Kings Cross all those years ago, ambulance call-outs to the area dropped by 80 per cent. Can you imagine the relief that must have been felt by the emergency services and hospital emergency departments? Countless experts have urged the Victorian government to trial a supervised injecting centre, and only two days ago the Victorian coroner, Jacqui Hawkins, said she was convinced that a supervised injecting centre is essential to intervention in Richmond. The coroner's recommendation came via an inquest into the death of a 35-year-old mother who died of a heroin overdose in Richmond last year. She was found in a toilet and was taken to St Vincent's. I do not think that someone who has a heroin addiction should be treated any differently from anybody else, and she should not have died in this way.

I was actually going to read out quite a bit from the coroner's report, but I think it would be much better if members took it away and read it for themselves. The evidence in the coroner's report is overwhelming. She has spoken to experts. Members do not have to believe the Greens and they do not have to believe Ms Patten; they need only look at the coroner's report. She has spoken to doctors who work in the area, to pharmacists and to staff at the supervised injecting room in Sydney. There is a wealth of evidence to say that this works. I think we have to be a society that says everybody has value, whether you are a drug addict or whether you are a banker. You could be a very wealthy person and be a drug addict. It goes across all classes; it does not just stay with one particular group.

In conclusion, I have to say that I went into this debate hoping that the government would see sense, especially when the coroner's report came out. I thought that the coroner, an authoritative organisation presenting evidence about how a supervised injecting room could help and how a supervised injecting room could keep people alive until they were ready to go into rehabilitation, until they were ready to actually address their addiction, would be persuasive. But no, the government has said, 'No. We like the idea. We're not really sure how we are going to do it'. I have heard those arguments for 25 years. It is time to move on. We have 15 years of evidence from Sydney. It is about time we used the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry to say that we can do it just as well as they do it in Sydney.

My frustration at this is becoming extreme. While the government has not explicitly said that they are voting against the bill, I presume that is what they are doing. But if this bill fails today, that is not going to stop this campaign. It is not going to stop the residents of Richmond campaigning for a supervised injecting room. It is not going to stop me campaigning for a supervised injecting room. You may be able to avoid it today, but it is actually just going to make the campaign that much stronger. If we cannot deal with it in the Parliament, then the community will become more and more organised. They are the ones who are saying that they need this in their community — not just for the people who are drug addicted but for the people who live there and are tired of finding people in their front yards injecting, for the people who are tired of going through the back lanes of the community and finding people in a very distressed state or people who have died and for those who have found people dead in toilets. That is not the way people should live.

The government should face up to what is required and get on with the job. If they will not accept Ms Patten's bill, which is a very sensible bill, they should bring in their own and do their own trial.