Last week, legislation for a supervised injecting room in Richmond passed the Lower House. This was the result of a long campaign from the community. This reform will save lives.
Unfortunately, the Government cut off debate in the Lower House before I had a chance to speak, but I wanted to share my thoughts on the issue:
It is my real pleasure to welcome this Bill to the Parliament for a trial for a safe injecting room in North Richmond.
As the saying goes: better late than never.
Residents in Richmond, the Yarra Council, prominent drug experts, and the Greens have all been calling for this reform for many, many years.
Instead of seeing action or leadership from the Government, people who are suffering from drug dependence have been totally let down by their Government.
And residents in Richmond have literally had to deal with dead bodies on their doorsteps and in their laneways.
Laura Wallis is one such resident.
One day, Laura was going about her business, about to do her laundry in the communal space in her building when she came across someone overdosing.
As she told Monash University students as part of a report earlier this year, in Laura’s own words she says,
“I helped do CPR on a deceased person. I now regularly see his face in my mind.”
That is an experience Laura will have to carry for the rest of her life.
Laura also explains that her three-year-old son is terrified of needles and cannot play outside without fear of finding them.
Laura herself has to physically restrain him any time they are outside their apartment, to make sure he doesn’t wander into a place where he will see someone injecting or see a dead body.
It is difficult to imagine kids being exposed to dead or dying bodies in a city like Melbourne.
You imagine this in war zones.
But this is the reality that this Richmond community has been living with for years.
And there are dozens of other parents in the area who have the same experience.
The coroner Sara Hinchey told a parliamentary inquiry in June about the case of a Richmond toddler who was stabbed by a needle that had been left in the tanbark at his childcare centre.
Residents have had enough.
The state's coroner has twice called for a trial. In 2016, 190 people died from heroin in Victoria.
34 of these were in one four-block area near Victoria st in Richmond.
That’s 190 last year who lost their lives - who will never have the chance to get back on their feet - because they died from something that could have been prevented had they received medical treatment fast enough.
People like Sam O'Donnell. A 27-year-old who overdosed on heroin and died, alone, in a gutter in Melbourne's north.
His mum, Loretta, bravely told the ABC that if there had been a safe injecting room to go to that day he would definitely still be alive today.
"[Heroin addicts] are not evil. They're vulnerable, sad people," she said.
For the 10 years leading up to Sam's death, Loretta worried every minute of every day about
where her son was,
whether he would be found if he died,
and if he overdosed, whether there would be anyone to give him a Narcan injection to revive him.
Loretta told her story to the Government in the hope that politicians would have the courage to do something about it,
but she said: "It absolutely felt like it was a political football that no one would have the leadership or courage to address."
Instead of heeding Loretta’s call, and the coroners’ call, instead, this Government continued to oppose a safe injecting room trial.
Instead, the Labor Government was scared by the Liberals “law and order campaign” into trying to act like they’re cracking down on crime and drug users.
But we know this doesn’t work
CCTV and security guards are doing nothing to address the issue, they just displace people and move the problem elsewhere.
Richmond resident and Secretary of the local group Residents for Victoria Street Drug Solutions Judy Ryan puts it perfectly when she says, “Do you want a perception of safety or do you want actual safety?”.
A punitive approach to drug policy simply does not work.
The Australia21 think tank released a report earlier this year, with the backing of former police commissioners and assistant commissioners, two former heads of Corrective Services, a former Supreme Court Judge and a former Director of Public Prosecutions.
Their Report explained that despite more than 80,000 arrests related to drug use in Australia each year, there has been a continued rise in diseases, injuries, crimes and social costs.
The evidence is clear. A punitive approach to drugs - especially opioids - has failed.
Labor and the Liberals have had a unity ticket on this for years - they’ve both backed a system that simply is not supported by evidence.
A system that tries to demonise and punish and hide people taking drugs. But it has failed.
It has failed to stop people taking drugs and it has failed to protect the community from the consequences of drug use.
It has been said many times but it bears repeating, we simply cannot arrest our way out of this problem.
Harm minimisation strategies, like the provision of a safe injecting room where people can inject in a clean place and receive medical care if they get into trouble, work.
In Sydney, the Kings Cross medically supervised injecting centre is clear proof.
Since the safe injecting room was established, Ambulance call outs to King’s Cross reduced by 80%.
Even the number of publicly discarded needles and syringes almost halved. They successfully managed over 4400 overdoses over 10 years without a single fatality.
Harm minimisation is also the compassionate response that the community deserves.
Drug addiction is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. And as a health issue, the solution is medical treatment and community support.
We would not refuse medical treatment to someone with skin cancer because they had failed to wear sunscreen.
We would not refuse medical treatment to someone who was injured in a car accident where they were negligent or at fault.
That is why - regardless of the circumstances in which a person came to develop a physical dependence on illicit substances –
we cannot refuse users medical treatment.
This will save lives.
Why Governments - both Labor and Liberals - have denied people this chance to live, this chance to get back on their feet, for so many years is beyond me.
Why Governments - including this Labor Government - have shown such a lack of courage on this issue is beyond me.
Even when the coroner recommended a Safe Injecting Room earlier this year, after yet another woman’s preventable overdose death, Premier Daniel Andrews reiterated he was opposed to a safe injecting room.
Premier Daniel Andrews and his Labor Government had to be dragged and pushed into this - by the community, by drug experts, by crossbenchers and the Greens
It has been the Greens leading in this policy space for years.
First, I especially would like to highlight the tireless efforts of Yarra drug and alcohol services and the North Richmond Community Health Centre.
I would like to thank the Yarra Greens, especially the current Greens Yarra Councillors and Mayor Amanda Stone who has run a campaign for many years, and recently moved to create a memorial for overdose victims.
I’d like to thank former Yarra Councillors and especially Mayor Alison Clarke for their tireless work.
I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of Adam Bandt, the Federal Member for Melbourne, who has worked with the Richmond community to organise rallies and public meetings.
His team, especially Rob McLeod, have led the charge on local campaigning and should be extremely proud of their hard work.
At a state level, I would like to acknowledge the incredible efforts of Colleen Hartland who has taken this issue up in the other place, campaigned with the community and lobbied Daniel Andrews and Richard Wynne while they have ignored this issue for so long.
And Fiona Patten in the Upper House who has also recently been active on the issue.
Kathleen Maltzahn has also been a relentless advocate for this cause through her time on Yarra Council and as the Greens candidate for Richmond.
A compassionate and evidence-based approach to drug law reform has been something the Greens have worked on for years, and the threat of the Greens winning the seat of Northcote this Saturday I’m sure was in no small part an influence on Labor’s decision on this matter.
In fact, Labor has announced a whole range of Greens policies in the lead up to the by-election - from banning plastic bags to giving renters more rights, to this safe injecting room.
Things the Greens have worked on for years - which Labor has vehemently opposed - are suddenly becoming Labor policy and law overnight.
But to be honest - we don’t mind Labor stealing our policies. We just want to see our policies became law for a better Victoria.
And this safe injecting room trial is a wonderful thing for local residents, and for the whole Victorian community, and for good evidence-based policy.
I’m so pleased to commend the Bill to the House.