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Almost four years after announcing it would establish a safe injecting room in Melbourne’s CBD, the Victorian government has been accused of lacking the courage to follow through on its promise – with scores of deaths continuing. By Denham Sadler.

Deaths continue in the absence of promised safe injecting room in Melbourne’s CBD

A person prepares a syringe at North Richmond’s medically supervised injecting room.
A person prepares a syringe at North Richmond’s medically supervised injecting room.
Credit: AAP Image / James Ross

In 2015, Jill Mellon-Robertson’s son died of a drug overdose in Melbourne. He was 38 and had struggled for two decades with addiction and paranoid schizophrenia. At the time, there were no safe injecting rooms or facilities in the state.

Since his death, Mellon-Robertson has been campaigning for a safe injecting room in Melbourne’s central business district. She says her efforts have been stymied by a hostile media, protests by local business owners and residents, and a largely silent state government.

“We as a community should expect a better way for families, communities and people addicted to drugs,” Mellon-Robertson tells The Saturday Paper.

Safe injecting rooms aim to assist those with drug addictions by providing a safe space to use drugs, as well as immediate assistance in the event of an overdose and access to wraparound health services. Such facilities have been operating in Sydney for more than two decades and in the Victorian suburb of North Richmond since 2018.

The Victorian government promised a second safe injecting room to be located in the Melbourne CBD in mid-2020. More than three-and-a-half years later, however, there has been little progress and no location determined. From 2020 to 2022, 47 people died from heroin overdoses in the City of Melbourne, with more than one person dying each month in the CBD on average.

Mellon-Robertson is a member of the Keep Our City Alive group, which is campaigning for the government to establish a facility in the city.

“They’re sitting on their hands and doing nothing,” Mellon-Robertson says. “But it’s not going to go away, and we’re not going to go away. We care about people in this community, we care about the underprivileged and we care about the people dying in our streets.”

The medically supervised injecting room (MSIR) was opened in North Richmond in late 2018 after nearly two decades of campaigning from drug reform advocates. The facility has 20 injecting booths and shares its site with a needle and syringe program, which provides sterile equipment and health-related information and referrals.

Last year, an independent report on the centre, commissioned by the state government, found it was achieving its main aim of saving lives, providing “life-saving interventions for people who have a full range of health needs and may otherwise experience significant barriers to accessing healthcare and other services”.

According to the report, MSIR has managed nearly 6000 overdoses since it opened its doors, with none proving to be fatal. The safe injecting room has saved an estimated 63 lives in this time, based on modelling adapted from international studies. There has also been a reduction in ambulance call-outs for opioid overdoses in the area and related admissions to the closest public hospital.

“It’s a place for people to go where they trust the people who are there, who are well-trained and who know how to communicate with them,” Mellon-Robertson says.

“It’s not just shooting up and leaving; there’s a lot more than that with the wraparound services. This is what our CBD needs – to get people using drugs off the street so people have a place to go to get support and the facilities they need to use drugs safely.”

The Victorian government’s announcement it would open a safe injecting room in the CBD came after a report by Australian National Council of Drugs executive member Professor Margaret Hamilton urged it to do so.

However the Victorian government is yet to announce where the facility will be located and when it will be opened. A number of proposed sites were rejected after campaigns by businesses and local residents, an issue that continues to face the existing facility in North Richmond.

Mellon-Robertson is also a resident of the CBD and a business owner. She says the government needs to play a better role in educating people about the benefits of a safe injecting room.

“We run a business, we understand what it’s like,” she says. “They’re not uncaring people, but they have businesses to protect. We understand that, and it’s not their job, it’s the government’s job, to make these decisions.”

The current site being considered is reportedly the Salvation Army hub on Bourke Street. In July last year, however, a group of nearly 40 nearby business owners wrote an open letter arguing against the facility. The powerful police union is also against it.

It’s a familiar story for Judy Ryan, who was instrumental in the establishment of the North Richmond MSIR. After moving near North Richmond in 2012, Ryan was exposed to the drug crisis and its human impact.

“I was so horrified about what I was witnessing every day,” Ryan tells The Saturday Paper.

“I came home once and a young guy had collapsed at my gate and I just thought, Fuck it. It’s out of control – people are dying and no one is doing anything.

Ryan ran as an independent in the local council election, campaigning for the establishment of a safe injecting room, and received nearly 5 per cent of the vote. She continued to campaign for the centre and, after multiple coroner’s reports recommended it and political movement from Fiona Patten, she was ultimately successful.

Ryan, who lives about 500 metres from the MSIR, says it is working as intended. “It works – it saves lives and it rehabilitates lives,” she says. “It’s a life-changing facility.

“It’s an amazing health facility for people who need support. People around here are homeless and have had struggles in their lives. Now they can go somewhere where they have dignity and support, without the stigma. People care for them.

“It’s just obvious. I don’t care how you spin the injecting room – we don’t have ambulances, sirens and dead people in the street anymore.”

Ryan, who was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2022 for service to community health, says she is now seeing the CBD site face the same backlash and roadblocks as the MSIR did, as well as opposition from the Herald Sun, which was once in support of the North Richmond centre. “I feel really sad,” she says. “We had a government that was courageous and opened that facility, and now they’re just not doing it.

“It’s nearly four years since they said they’d open up the city facility and so many people have died in that time. The government just hasn’t engaged with people, they’ve let the media run the conversation.”

While some businesses and residents are opposing the CBD site, a group of nearly 20 peak medical bodies and unions, including the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of GPs, have backed it.

A common argument against safe injecting rooms is they will attract more people to use drugs in the area, but this is not backed up by research into the North Richmond facility. Hamilton’s report found any “honeypot” effect in the area was the result of a “longstanding drug market” already in operation.

“There is already a drugs honeypot in the City of Melbourne, like there was in Richmond, and this is a major flaw in opponents’ arguments,” Ryan says. “They say opening an injecting room will open a honeypot – that’s just false. You don’t open an injecting room unless there already is a honeypot.”

Following the announcement that there would be a city injecting room, the Victorian government contracted former Victoria Police chief commissioner Ken Lay to provide advice on the centre. After multiple delays, his final report was handed to government more than six months ago but is yet to be released publicly.

A Victorian government spokesperson declined to reveal if or when a CBD safe injecting room would be established and said the report would be released “in due course”. “The findings in Ken Lay’s report highlight the complexity of this matter – it must be dealt with sensitivity and comprehensively, and we’re taking the time to get it right,” the spokesperson said.

The new Victorian premier, Jacinta Allan, has largely avoided discussion on the safe injecting room since she replaced Daniel Andrews and declined to answer questions on its progress at a press conference late last year.

While the state government has gone silent on the issue, and the debate has been dominated by businesses’ and residents’ interests, Mellon-Robertson and her campaign isn’t going anywhere.

“There are so many people in my group who have lost children the same way I have,” she says. “As empathetic humans we should be looking at this and thinking, What are we doing? Governments are just looking away. It’s all too hard, so they look away.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Waiting room".

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