What message does a second injecting room send?

Posted on 5th May 2023
Two people wearing white shirts walking in the CBD. One is wearing a black cohealth backpack.

An extract of the following opinion piece was published in the Herald Sun on 5 May 2023.

Over the coming weeks, the community will have the opportunity to give their views on a proposed CBD supervised injecting room via an online survey that will form part of Ken Lay’s final report to Government. 

It’s important that a range of voices are heard during this consultation process.  

Despite some media portrayals, there is significant community support for injecting rooms, and Ken Lay’s consultation will be an opportunity for people to tell him directly what they think. 

Fifty per cent of people polled by the Age recently said they would support the establishment of an injecting room in their suburb, with 14 per cent saying they were unsure.    

The poll results remind us that Melbourne is a compassionate city that understands people who are at significant risk of death need health services. 

But what would it take the persuade the 14 per cent that a CBD injecting room makes sense? 

Although I believe that saving human life should be the most persuasive of arguments, the ‘injecting rooms save lives’ message isn’t enough for everyone.  

We mustn’t chastise people for wanting to know that injecting rooms, otherwise known as overdose prevention centres, do more than just save lives. 

One of our addiction medicine GPs told me recently that a close family member believes that Governments should prioritise ‘getting people off drugs’.     

The truth is that overdose prevention centres are a vital gateway through which we can connect people to pathways out of addiction, such as drug treatment. Drug treatment programs such as Methadone and a variety of other substances (called ‘alternative pharmacotherapy’) act as replacements for heroin and are accessible through injecting rooms.    

These substances are legal and work in the way nicotine patches work for smokers. Methadone and similar drugs act to stabilise a person addicted to heroin.  

Alongside the pharmacotherapy, overdose prevention centres can connect people to counselling and support services to address the root causes of the drug use and bring order to chaotic lives.   

Since it opened in 2018, the North Richmond Medically Supervised Injecting Room has connected 700+ users to free pharmacotherapy, enabling them to stop buying and using heroin, and cease funding the illicit drug trade in Melbourne.  

Many of those 700+ are receiving monthly injections of an alternative pharmacotherapy called depot buprenorphine, a slow-release drug that crushes the desire to get a ‘hit’. But were it not for their contact with the injecting room, they may never have built a relationship of trust with the health worker who helped them make the appointment. 

One of our greatest challenges has been how to connect people who use drugs with health services and treatment.     

Their lives are sometimes so damaged and chaotic that they struggle to access mainstream services, many of which we take for granted. They might find it hard to navigate our complex health systems and keep appointments.  They face judgement and discrimination from hospitals and GPs, which makes them reluctant to attend.    

One cohealth client, a long-term injecting drug user, said he was kicked out of a GP waiting room because the receptionist said he made other patients feel uncomfortable.    

The people we support are often carrying the scars of significant life trauma such as childhood neglect, physical and sexual abuse and institutional abuse. They are often victims and survivors of harm and acts done to them by others.  Much of their drug use is self-medication to blunt the trauma.  

Overdose prevention centres allow us to meet folks where they are, and offer them drug treatment, mental health services, clean injecting equipment, GPs and nurses and homelessness support.   

They are the gateway where people are told they matter and kept alive long enough to get the help they need.    

Right now, our CBD is a 24/7 open-air, unsupervised injecting room extending over multiple city blocks. This problem has existed for many decades and is only getting worse.  

There was a 28 per cent rise in heroin-related ambulance callouts in the 12 months to 2022. Recent data from the Coroner’s Court reveals that the City of MElbourne now tops the list of LGAs with the highest number of heroin deaths. 

Surely it is preferable to move this public drug use off the streets and into a health centre where people can get the support they need.  

A CBD overdose prevention centre would operate seamlessly with outreach teams who could support people to move off the streets and into the health centre.  

It would work with local traders and residents who are concerned about people doing it tough in and around their properties. 

It would be a gateway through which we can connect some of the hardest-to-reach people to health workers, homelessness services, mental health support and pathways out of addiction, such as pharmacotherapy programs. 

Where injecting services do not exist, injecting still goes on. People end up in car parks and laneways where we have little hope of connecting them with drug treatment, where there is a high chance they’ll die and where they have no hope of recovery.  

Opponents of injecting rooms say that they send the wrong message.   

If injecting rooms send any message, it is “your life is valuable and we want you to be safe and to get the help you need.”    

While drug addiction can be challenging and difficult to understand, individuals who experience addiction are human beings who are worthy of respect and access to healthcare. In fact, the right to the highest standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being.  

Overdose prevention centres are part of the solution, helping people to break the cycle of addiction and create a healthier, more compassionate society.   

By providing individuals with the health care and support they need, through supervised injecting rooms, we can create a healthier, more compassionate society. 


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