I Would Welcome An Ice Injecting Room Next To My Son's School
A week before his trouncing at the Victorian state election, Mathew Guy made a promise.
If elected, he’d close Richmond’s Safe Injecting Facility within a week.
“I wouldn’t want an ice injecting room next to my son’s primary school,” he said, “and therefore I won’t tolerate it next to anyone else’s children’s primary school.”
It’s not often that a statement by a politician upsets me. But this one hit me in the pit of my stomach. It broke through the fortress of apathy that protects me from the horrors of the political cycle, and I felt burning rage.
Why? Because this facility was so desperately needed it was verging on the absurd. Because Sydney got one in 2001, and every year we had to wait was another year too long.
But my reasons were also personal. Since my sister was imprisoned in 2015, I’ve come to know the families of her fellow inmates. These are parents who don’t have the money to send their kids to private rehabs; who have added their daughters to months-long waiting lists for Medicare funded treatment, only to discover they’ve walked out on day three.
These families don’t care about the war on drugs or political agendas or ‘optics’. They just want to keep their daughters alive.
And, with treatment options thin on the ground, they recognise that harm minimisation practices are the best way to make that happen.
Before the opening of the safe injecting room, the streets of North Richmond had played host to a slow-moving massacre. The North Richmond Community Health Centre alone responded to 37 overdoses in the first half of 2017, and that was just in the area immediately surrounding the centre.
Bodies were found on the streets and in cars; ambulance sirens rang out at regular intervals as paramedics fought their way through Richmond’s heavy traffic. Local shop owners were fed up with the chaos and the carnage.
“It was just madness.” says Jeff*, who scores in North Richmond.
“People would be crouching down to use in alleyways and at the bottom of the stairs in the flats. Cops were always floating around waiting to nab people using. And there was equipment all over the ground because people didn’t want to get caught so they’d dump their stuff.”
Jeff says he knows several people who overdosed on the Richmond streets before the facility was opened. Some were revived in time by ambos, others weren’t so lucky.
“People think you OD because you’re an idiot and you don’t know how much you can handle, but a lot of the time the gear is just really strong," he said.
"Or you’re trying to mix up as quick as possible: it’s not like you’ve got time to sit there and measure up the perfect amount while you wait for the cops to tap you on the shoulder.”
Let’s be clear: the local drug trade wasn’t going anywhere. Every couple of years, a new police crackdown was announced and cops were diverted en masse to North Richmond to disrupt the trade: to rid the place of the enterprising young dealers who stand at intervals along ‘Vic Street’ and nod conspiratorially in the direction of passers-by- “You want?”
It didn’t work. It was never going to work, and as long as people want to go to Richmond to buy and sell their drugs, it never will. Because every time you arrest a dealer, there are five more entrepreneurial understudies champing at the bit to take his or her place.
“The crackdowns never make any difference to the trade,” says Jeff.
“A few people might get taken off the streets, but then there’s always people coming back to the area who’ve come out of prison. It’s a cycle.”
The shop owners of Richmond have known this for a long time. That’s why the Victoria Street Business Association endorses the safe injecting room. It’s why the place enjoys broad support from local residents.
It took 20 years too long, but in July 2018 the Andrews government finally did the right thing and opened the facility.
“At the centre, they can’t arrest you,” says Jeff.
“The cops aren’t allowed to hang around outside waiting to nab you like they used to at the needle exchange. So now we can use in peace, and the streets are cleaner outside because they give you all the equipment you need in there.”
As of September, 140 life-threatening overdoses have been prevented at the safe injecting site. But for those who use its services, the facility is so much more than just a safe place to inject drugs.
For many people, it’s become a vital community contact point, fostering supportive relationships with community members and health workers that previously might not have happened. It also acts as a first point of contact for people who want psychological support or help to quit.
And so, when I read that headline reinforcing Guy’s threat to close the place down, I reacted with seething anger. Because it was bad enough when the systematic abuse of people who use drugs was entrenched. The thought of having these life-saving protections granted, then cruelly ripped away, was overwhelming.
So, for the families who I sit and chat with in the waiting room of the Victorian women’s prison, this was more than just a practical victory. The opening of the centre was an important first step towards elevating the human rights of their loved ones.
It was sending a message that, whether people use drugs or not, they deserve the same protections, comforts and respect as anyone else.
On election day, Victorians showed their support for this message.
Mum was in a McDonald's the day after the election, in an electorate that had just swung like a pendulum to Labor. An older man approached her and asked for her paper. She obliged, and was returning to her coffee when he waved the thing in front of her face and huffed: “Disgusting!” He meant the election result.
“I’m glad Mathew Guy lost,” replied Mum. “Now he won’t be able to close the safe injecting facility.”
“Oh yeah?” roared the man, “I suppose you’d like to put one in front of every school?!”
Mum and I discussed the idea in the car as we left the McDonald's. Twenty years ago, that thought might have had the majority of Victorian’s crawling with disgust. But we’ve come a long way, and I like to think the election result shows that we aren’t afraid of the heroin-user boogie man anymore. If a facility was needed in front of my son’s school, I would welcome it.
And so, Mathew Guy and the man from McDonald's can yell and scream about how they wish things were still the same as 1958. The rest of us won’t be listening.