Victoria’s Liberal Opposition — which effectively controls the Upper House — has announced that it will block heroin injecting room legislation. Dr Joe Santamaria, who addressed Liberal Party meetings on the issue, explains why drug liberalisation has again failed.
In The Age (Saturday, August 12), the Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, berated the Liberal Party over its decision to oppose the injecting room legislation now before Parliament. He is reported as saying that the Liberals “had no spine, no leadership”. He accused them of conducting a “sham consultation with the community”. Professor Penington was also reported as saying that the Liberals had no understanding of drug abuse issues.
One could have been spared the rhetoric.
Professor Penington and the members of the Drug Policy Expert Committee have had a virtual free run to sell the Government’s drug policy on injecting rooms to the community.
They have conducted their own community forums, not debates, with those who have challenged their data and their interpretations of the issues.
They have had a free run in the media, with few opportunities given to those who disagree with their proposals and their data.
They have had a near monopoly of the presentations to the professional groups and to the mayors of the major cities.
The Liberal Party, to its credit, did not go down that path. In its consultations, it did hold public forums and gave an opportunity for the case against the Government’s plans to be aired. Some of its members did visit the overseas facilities in Switzerland, Holland, Germany and Sweden. The Party did seek an input from those who oppose the provisions of the first document that was released by the Penington Committee in Easter week.
Professor Penington’s data, as presented to Liberal meetings at which I participated, came under close scrutiny, especially his unequivocal comments about the success of the overseas injecting rooms, the failure of “prohibition” and the results of a survey which relied on a loaded question.
His interpretation of the Swedish data on narcotic deaths was shown to be wrong and his comparisons with heroin deaths in Australia were flawed.
Most members of his committee seem to have had little experience of the full ramifications of the abuse of mind-altering drugs in our community.
There is little reference to the medical literature and there is a selective use of evidence. There has been a careful avoidance of the epidemic of Hepatitis C among injecting drug users and the prevalence of that disease in the Frankfurt injecting rooms.
The medical evidence is overwhelmingly against enabling people to inject drugs intravenously. It is my strong belief that the Labor Party made a serious error in proclaiming an unequivocal determination to establish injecting rooms to deal with the problem of heroin deaths and drug overdoses.
The justification for such a policy was always suspect.
The establishment of those centres in Europe was the outcome of public anger about the open drug scenes and the threats to the central business and recreational areas in certain cities such as Zurich, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
The evidence for the decline of drug-related deaths in those cities was more closely identified with the closure of the open drug scenes than with the establishment of injecting rooms.
Just as the community generally was confused by the assertive presentation of the Government’s proposals, the members of the Liberal Party were divided in their responses to the injecting rooms.
They were aware from the strong opposition displayed at some public meetings that the community was angry and suspicious, especially in those municipalities where the first injecting rooms were to be opened. There was more than just an attitude of “not in my backyard”.
Members of the Drug Policy Expert Committee shifted ground in some of their claims: that the injecting rooms may not save many, if any, lives; that the prime purpose was to remove the public nuisance and dangers of the street markets away from central business areas.
But the problem of discarded syringes and the hobbling of police activity irritated the community, which was anxious to see the millions of dollars being offered by the Government diverted into detoxification units and rehabilitation services.
Moreover, there was a sense of disenchantment with the plea of harm minimisation as more and more people began to realise its shortcomings.
The opponents of the injecting rooms began to form associations and to become actively involved in the public debates.
The Government and the Drug Policy Expert Committee assumed that they were misinformed, but failed to understand that their concerns were valid.
The issue was inflamed by the open letter signed by prominent citizens, which was published in the daily newspapers. It was further aggravated when a former Liberal leader came out publicly and urged the Liberal Party to support the Government’s enabling legislation.
These moves were counterproductive. The Liberal Party gradually consolidated its position and apparently formulated a drug policy of its own, which excluded the establishment of injecting rooms.
The Party was surprised to hear that the legislation may be deferred until October and apparently decided to enunciate its position before Parliament resumed in mid-August.
The Liberal Party has now unanimously declared that it will oppose the legislation. The Nationals have already announced that they will vote against it and two of the independents in the Assembly have declared their opposition to the legislation.
It is to be hoped that the Government ceases to pursue this unpopular course and gets on with the task of providing more appropriate services to treat and care for heroin addicts.
The recent intensification of police activity on the streets needs to be reinforced, as a matter of urgency, by the provision of centres of care, of detoxification and rehabilitation.
These should be based on an overall strategy of Demand Reduction and Harm Prevention and a determination to depoliticise the way forward.