24 July 2004

Injecting room discussed at public meeting in Redfern

1pm - 5pm Sat 24th July 2004

Public Meeting held in the Redfern Community Centre, Hugo Street, 'the block', Redfern.

Chaired by Lord Mayor Clover Moore

Dear Colleagues,

Despite a rainy, cold Saturday afternoon, there was a huge turn-out to a meeting called by Lord Mayor Clover Moore to gauge public feeling about her public statements last month about a comprehensive series of initiatives including an injecting room to address drug issues in Redfern. Clover Moore chaired proceedings firmly but fairly in what was sometimes a charged atmosphere. I estimate that there were over 250 people present. Some were the same faces as who attended the last meeting on the subject convened by Trevor Davies to call for an injecting room in Redfern. Also present this time were City Councillors, Senator Arthur Chesterfield Evans, 'Uncle Dick', Dr Alex Wodak, Professor Paul Haber, Superintendent Dennis Smith and many other community elders.

Ms Moore gave a brief introduction and outlined the problems including community unrest, crime, unemployment, childhood problems, mental disease, drugs and deaths. All speakers agreed that each problems needs to be tackled in turn by the appropriate agencies with coordinated, Koori-friendly strategies. Some of these are in place, some being developed and others in the formulation stage.

There were representatives of youth services, housing officers, drug treatment agencies, police and aboriginal groups. These were put in touch with enquiring citizens by Ms Moore, councillors and staff attending who were 'networking' busily all afternoon. The meeting was only starting to break up 5.30pm.

At least 40 local residents took up the Mayor's invitation to address the meeting on their main concerns. One 'affected' aboriginal woman interjected almost constantly throughout the meeting. She was like a Greek chorus, responding to nearly every point as it was raised, often as a Devil's advocate or in a quasi-humorous manner. Ironically, perhaps, this woman represented many of the contradictions of the community. In contrast to her often meandering comments, on a couple of occasions she became perfectly lucid with perceptive comments. She was permitted to address the meeting microphones at least twice, staunchly defending the Mayor and the police in turn after some very critical comments by others, both white and aboriginal. I noted from many of the aboriginal speakers that 'politically incorrect' terms are still commonly used in normal speech, without the pejorative manner sometimes assumed in other circles.

Most of the comments were extremely positive and optimistic while all conceding that there were problems of a greater of lesser dimension requiring additional services. Everyone agreed that addiction treatments were lacking and many spoke in favour of an injecting room, but not in isolation. At least four people stated that they were drug users and had various 'takes' on what needed to be done. Others were residents who enjoyed living in the area but described numerous ways in which their lives had been affected. Some distinguished themselves as having bought houses in the area to show their commitment to the community. They also described public drug use, discarded needles, overdoses and in one case a drug death in their own driveway only a block from Eveleigh Street which is reputedly an epicentre of a drug use and sales to rival Kings Cross or Cabramatta.

After Superintendent Smith gave his outline of the new policing proposals, Dr Alex Wodak pointed to some of the statistics indicating the undeniable extent of the problems and the overloaded local treatment services. I pointed out that the two local detox services for alcoholics and drug addicts (Basement 82 at Prince Alfred Hospital and Langton Hospital) had both been closed down in disgraceful moves by health authorities. Drs Haber and Wodak were at pains to say that they had fought serious competition for funds in the public hospital systems over the years, and that new funds had already been allocated for new detox services.

Both doctors pointed to the increase in HIV cases overseas when needle services had been compromised. Thus proposals to close such services in or near 'the Block' in Redfern could risk such an epidemic here and spreading elsewhere in New South Wales with a very mobile population. They cited studies in Canada, the US and by the WHO showing the utility and cost-effectiveness of needle availability. With it, drug users also come into contact with health professionals, education and treatment referrals. But such services cannot prevent overdose deaths nor can they be assured to collect all their issued needles. Hence an injecting room is a natural response to high degrees of public drug use and overdoses. It would also be a means to getting some addicts into treatment. We were told that methadone and buprenorphine can cut crime rates dramatically as shown by statistics on the NSW Government web sites.

While there were many suggestions and varied emphases on the issues, only two speakers were completely opposed to Clover Moore's overall initiatives. One revealed serious personal criticisms of the Mayor citing salary and employment conditions. The other stated that the community needed to depend more upon its own 'culture' and had no need of outside help. This denied that at least half the community was non-Koori and clearly 'culture' had not been enough thus far to prevent drug mayhem and deaths of young users. Neither speaker had constructive alternative suggestions but represented a minority and negative view amongst the large numbers who spoke in support of the Mayor's approaches.

Dr Wodak mentioned, almost in passing, the experimental but promising use of prescribed heroin in some European countries for the small (1-3%) proportion of drug users who cannot cope with existing treatments (detox, rehab, methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone, etc). He said that these measures should be considered at some stage, but ought not to take precedence over proven life-saving facilities such as medically supervised injecting rooms. Others had pointed out the need for primary health care for both drug users and the rest of the community. One resident (non-drug using, white) pointed out that an injecting room would mean that children would not see people shooting up all the time and this may break the cycle of drug use being 'normal'.

All in all it was an uplifting and positive afternoon. Reassuring to know that so many people are anxious to have an input into community matters. And that there was at least 90% of details which were agreed upon. Resolutions were mooted to call for more funding, enabling legislation, etcetera for better employment programs, health facilities and housing for the Redfern community.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..