This Wednesday marked an important milestone in this country’s painfully slow awakening to the human cost of its drug policies.
At a simple ceremony at the Wayside Chapel’s safe injecting room in Kings Cross, a group gathered quietly for the 10-year anniversary of the facility.
While much of the rest of the world is slowly beginning to understand the need to shift from a law enforcement approach towards drug abuse to one which treats it as a health issue, drug policy here has hardly changed since it opened. For now, the King’s Cross facility is still the exception that proves the rule of general ignorance and political gutlessness on this issue in Australia.
Speakers at the event described the way things were back then: of friends dying, of lanes littered with used fits and a seedier Kings Cross before the Wayside opened its groundbreaking "tolerance room". The "T room", as it came to be known gave the area’s injecting drug users a place to safely shoot up without fear of a fatal overdose.
The Reverend Ray Richmond was there — the man who 10 years ago stood ready to go to jail to save members of his flock from a squalid, premature death in a local toilet, a stairwell or a park. When he speaks about that time, Ray can take you down a very dark stretch of memory lane. He described his despair at the stream of deaths he was witnessing on the streets of the Cross in the late 90s, and the hope offered at the time by the recommendations of the Royal Commission into police corruption that a legal injecting centre be opened.
Looking back, it’s possible to see the establishment of the centre as one of the cracks that have begun to open up debate into failing drug policies all over the world. Ray spoke of his realisation years ago upon hearing a high-ranking British policeman speak out in support of harm minimisation that "we were not alone".
Indeed he wasn’t — and his side is growing, as a surprisingly large number of the people who are coming around to his way of thinking are police. In North America a group called LEAP, made up of serving and former members of the law enforcement community, is now calling for decriminalisation, claiming the "war on drugs" has failed and is making the problem worse.
Of course, if you’re an American you don’t have to go very far to see the horrific endgame of prohibition. Mexico, which shares a 3000 kilometre border with the US, is so ravaged by drug-related violence it has been classified by the United States Joint Forces Command along with Pakistan as on the brink of becoming a failed state.
As their health and prison systems groan under the strain of maintaining this phony "war", authorities in the US, Mexico and South America have no option but to face the same facts that confronted Kings Cross locals 10 years ago.
At the time, surrounded by the human carnage of unsafe injection, as well as the tons of drug paraphernalia littered around local streets, residents and shopkeepers were willing to try something, anything, new.
One of those locals was the MP and now federal Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek, who told of how in the era before the injecting room opened, her husband had come to pick her up from St Vincent’s hospital after the birth of her child — and how he had returned to the car to find a window smashed and a syringe in the baby capsule.
Looking for a way forward, Reverend Ray nearly despaired when it was announced that the 1999 drug summit would not recommend a heroin injecting room trial. So he had decided the only thing to do was a bit of old-fashioned civil disobedience — and set up the T room anyway.
One former drug addict, Sally, told the assembled crowd how the local drug users had been slow to trust Reverend Ray during the early days of the centre. But, she says, after he was charged over his involvement in the project, users began to like him — they could see he was a criminal, "like the rest of us".
As drug and addiction researcher Dr Alex Wodak explained to the gathering, Reverend Ray’s courage led to the institution of the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Darlinghurst Road. But, as he also pointed out, today we’re faced with the political absurdity of its still being "a trial facility" over eight years later.
Arguably such a shameful policy failure is to be expected in the current climate. If a strong state government led by Bob Carr fresh from an election win didn’t have the guts to set up the trial without the Wayside’s forcing his hand, then it’s highly unlikely a weak one led by Nathan Rees will.
The current padre at the Wayside, Graeme Long, presented Ray with the "Order of the Wayside" observing that although Ray has done important work in over 18 countries, it is unlikely he will ever get an Order of Australia.
As the ceremony concluded, and we had a bite to eat, there were no cheers or fanfare — this was not a party. It was simply a group of sincere community members who had come together to remember a difficult and important moment in their lives. And a victory.
That victory though is tempered by the enormous task still ahead. And by the still unanswered question: How long are we prepared to suffer the costs of treating drugs as a law enforcement rather than a health issue? And who in the mainstream will have the guts to stand up and spend a bit of political capital to bring some sanity to this complex debate?
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