The importance of safe injecting rooms.
Let’s begin with a statement of the bleeding obvious: safe injecting rooms are not popular.
Politicians promising to build them are unlikely to win many votes.
Having one in your neighbourhood isn’t going to raise property values and no real estate agent is going to spruik the proximity of a safe injecting room to a potential home buyer, or even a low-end renter.
In combining the twin bogeymen of drugs and crime, safe injecting rooms are easy fodder for tabloid media and reactionary politicians seeking to scare people who have no relationship with drugs and want to keep it that way.
But every bit as obvious as their unpopularity, is the evidence that safe injecting rooms work. They stop people dying, get drug users off the streets and provide them with medical care and access to rehabilitation services.
In the absence of decriminalisation, they’re one of the best options policy makers have to prevent drug related deaths, but require politicians armed with evidence and a backbone to ward off the scaremongers.
Sadly, it appears Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp isn’t one of them.
Nine months after council voted in favour of a safe injecting facility in the former Yooralla Building opposite Flinders Street Station, the Lord Mayor recently performed a backflip, telling 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that the council no longer supported the proposed location,
She didn’t elaborate on the reasons why, but the ferocious campaign against the proposal by property and business interests and amplified by the Herald Sun, is certain to be among them. No lord mayor, especially a moderate Liberal like Capp, would want to get that trio off-side.
Yet that still isn’t an excuse.
As tough as it was, the campaign against the Flinders Street facility was the same tired combination of prejudice, ignorance and nimbyism that met the state’s first safe injecting room in North Richmond four years ago and which has since proven to be yet another bovine bowel movement, posing as a campaign.
In 2020 an independent review of the facility (funded by the state government) found that in its first 18 months at least 27 deaths had been prevented (based on estimates from international modelling), 271 serious overdoses that likely would’ve resulted in death had been treated, while a further 2657 less serious overdoses were responded to. There was a reduction in public injecting and ambulance callouts and while the centre hadn’t improved the amenity of the surrounding area, it hadn’t made it worse.
The review also recommended a second facility in the Melbourne CBD, to both ease pressure on North Richmond and address the growing drug problem in the city centre, where 51 people died from drug overdoses between 2015 and 2019.
An initial proposal that it be based at the cohealth clinic near Queen Victoria Market was voted down by council after opposition from local residents and traders, but the revised site at the Yooralla Building passed with the mayor’s support. Former Police Commissioner Ken Lay was appointed to review the suitability of the site ahead of a final decision, but with the State Government having paid AUD40 million to buy it, it seemed a matter of case closed.
Yet in the face of an inevitable backlash and despite having a wealth of evidence, expert opinion and the authority of both Melbourne City Council and State Government behind her, it was a case Lord Mayor Capp didn’t bother to investigate further.
In her absence, opponents were given free reign by News Corp to spruik lies and nonsense. Nearby small business owners complained about the impact the facility would have on their business, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the area is already awash with drugs.
It was argued that opposite Flinders Street Station was the worst place for an injecting room even though the surrounding area accounted for a quarter of all drug activity in the CBD and users of hard drugs like heroin usually consume within 10 minutes of purchase.
And we were told (you know who you are) that having an injecting room opposite the gateway to the city would deter people from coming in, as though it would have flashing neon lights and be open to the public, rather than a small non-descript clinic that most people wouldn’t even notice.
All easily debunked, all completely unchallenged, and now that Lord Mayor Capp has folded all have effectively been endorsed. Despite still awaiting commissioner Lay’s report, the government will now likely search for a third site in the CBD.
Good luck with that.
It doesn’t matter where in the Hoddle Grid it’s proposed; a neighbour, a café owner, a landlord or even a random taxi driver will be found to oppose the facility and the might of News Corp will be on hand to provide them with a megaphone.
And most importantly of all, they now know it’ll likely work.
The North Richmond facility has been able to survive in the face of constant attack because the Yarra City Council, arguably the most left-wing in the country, have been steadfast in their support. Melbourne City Council is a different beast, but they still have a responsibility to serve and protect their constituents and this involves making tough decisions and standing by them.
The CBD – and the area around Flinders Street Station especially – has a serious drug problem now. People are dying on the streets and we’re learning how to step over them.
The opponents of safe injecting rooms might be able to get away without offering an alternative, but Sally Capp and her fellow councillors can’t. They have a problem, they know the solution, they need to stand up and back it in.
Note: The Mayor’s office was reached out to for comment; they did not respond.