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July 8, 2006 - Sydney Morning Herald (AUS)

1700 Overdoses That Didn't End In Death

By Ruth Pollard

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The Kings Cross injecting centre has been saving lives for five years, writes Ruth Pollard.

It is one of the few State Government programs devoted to caring for those living on the fringes of society rather than throwing them in jail.

Lauded as brave and pioneering by many and derided by others as giving tacit approval to illicit activities, the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre quietly celebrated its fifth year of operation eight weeks ago.

Such is the sensitivity surrounding its operation there were no obvious celebrations, no fanfare -- just a quiet determination to continue its work in the face of growing political opposition amid a law-and-order auction leading up to next year's state election.

"If they close the centre it is going to go back to how it was -- the mess in the street, the overdoses in the street, the death in the street will be a recurring nightmare," says Sally, who fought and beat a 17-year heroin habit.

One of the first drug users to register when the centre opened on May 6, 2001, she gradually moved from heroin to methadone, and from the streets to public housing.

In August she celebrates three years off methadone, and four years of sleeping indoors.

With assistance from staff at the injecting centre, Sally gathered the strength to move away from drugs when she discovered her partner of eight years had cancer.

"It didn't matter how many times I had overdosed and been brought back, it wasn't until I was confronted with my boyfriend's mortality that it made some sense to get straight."

In its five years of operation, the centre has registered 8912 injecting drug users, many of whom had not previously had any recent contact with health services. Nearly 310,000 episodes of injecting have occurred at the centre, now running at about 220 a day -- episodes that would otherwise have happened in parks, toilets or back lanes, in public view and without medical support if an overdose occurs.

A long-time Kings Cross resident, Margaret Harvie, said the centre had made a huge difference to those who live and work in the area.

"The injecting centre has significantly improved things -- you do not have people overdosing; there are not ambulances screaming around the streets."

Ms Harvie dismissed the idea that the centre is a honeypot for dealers and users.

People have been hanging around Kings Cross for years, she says, attracted by the nightclubs and the prostitution rather than the injecting centre.

But the Liberal leader, Peter Debnam, said he would close the centre if elected premier next year -- dumping his predecessor John Brogden's policy of supporting the centre.

His health spokeswoman, Jillian Skinner, who voted against the centre's trial, has been asked to develop the Opposition's drug policy.

"If you can clearly demonstrate that it is a success in helping people move on to rehabilitation, then good; if it is [money] that could have been spent allowing people to go to treatment services that is not a good use of scarce resources," she said.

Funded by the confiscated proceeds of crime -- not with taxpayers' money as the Opposition claims -- the centre was born out of the 1999 drug summit at State Parliament.

Harry Herbert is the executive director of Uniting Care and the licensing operator of the injecting centre, which runs on a yearly budget of $2.5 million.

"The board feels as strongly now as it did back in 1999 when the original decision was taken -- it is serving a very important social purpose and it is appropriate for a church body to be involved."

The medical director of the centre, Ingrid van Beek, is urging politicians to reserve judgement until the final evaluation is released in mid-2007. The centre has treated 1752 overdoses on site without a fatality, 91 per cent of them associated with heroin and other opioids, she said.

Describing it as a "gateway" for drug users to enter treatment and rehabilitation programs, she said the centre had referred users to programs on 5380 occasions: "We have a brokerage arrangement in place where we can fast-track people onto treatment programs and support them for the first three months."

There is no evidence the centre is contributing to crime in the area, or has attracted more drug dealers, said Mark Murdoch, the Kings Cross Local Area Commander for the police.

"There is nothing to indicate that the centre is anything but good for the area.

"Police support Government initiatives such as the [injecting centre] and police are there to enforce the law, which is evidenced by Kings Cross Local Area Command attaining the highest rates of drug detections in the state."

Government support for the injecting centre appears strong. The trial was just one part of the Government's drug policy, which encompassed prevention, education, treatment and law enforcement, said the acting Minister for Health, Frank Sartor. "The independent evaluations have given us evidence that the centre has had a positive impact."

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