This article first appeared on The Big Smoke
Despite the proven results of safe inhalation rooms overseas, the political response in this country is pitifully backwards.
After I’d voted in the Federal election on Saturday, I chose not to pick up a very Australian piece of white sandwich bread, abundant with tomato sauce and garnished with an Epping sausage, from the sizzle at my polling booth. Instead, I stopped in at the Chinese Bakery and picked up a very cosmopolitan pork roll, loaded with chilli, pate, vegetables and delicious porky goodness. This lunch choice is a poignant representation of the level of connection I felt with the Australian policy landscape pre and post voting: perhaps a shade or two above none.
The double dissolution election was triggered by an issue that (a) didn’t affect the vast majority of people (including me) and (b) was a poorly veiled excuse to get rid of a motley old bunch o’ senators who dared to have and express their own opinions on policy issues. The diversity within Australia’s buffet of political options, resulting in a multifarious senate, can be considered in many ways. For example, one major disadvantage is the dilution of unity regarding important policy issues, which stems from ideological arrogance and leads to a lack of meaningful progress. Conversely, an interesting advantage has been that many people have been elected to the senate who 50 years ago, would have been laughed out of politics because they were too “common” (e.g., not a lawyer or businessy type, or next in a long line of self-important, privileged people). Those senators – the Ricky Muirs, the Glenn Lazaruses, the Jacquie Lambies – have been able to get right on in with the Old Boys’ Club and have a crack at representing the interests of Australian citizens. Beauty! You little ripper! (Note expressions of Australian vernacular; attempting in vain to nurture patriotic enthusiasm.)
Now where was I? Oh, that’s right, I was bored to death with politics and concurrently feeling guilty about it, because I am a social worker and social workers are supposed to care about politics.
So, I began researching party positions on major election issues that impacted the marginalised populations I work with, such as health and education, about three weeks ago. Trudging through mildly interesting article after mildly interesting article, I felt superficially interested. It was like having sex with a really attractive man with whom, nevertheless, I couldn’t manufacture sexual chemistry. I was going through the motions, and enjoying what I was seeing, but just not into it. Posting the odd article about policy positions to Facebook was my equivalent to faking an orgasm.
I was bored to death until exactly Wednesday morning (three days prior to the election), when an issue emerged that I could finally get genuinely excited about: Australia’s first supervised inhalation room in Liverpool, NSW. Much to the delight of front line emergency responders, such as senior law officials and drug experts, the inhalation room is going to be implanted to provide ice users with a safe place to consume drugs, in the company of trained staff.
In many European cities, inhalation rooms have been operational for decades. The best evaluations of drug consumption rooms have been carried out in Vancouver and Sydneyand overwhelmingly, evidence has supported this strategy because drug consumption rooms decrease the spread of blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis C and HIV; reduce ambulance call-outs; increase referrals to treatment centres; reduce overdose-related injury and death; and protect public health by providing appropriate receptacles for drug consumption equipment disposal. An additional bonus is that drug consumption rooms provide authorities with vital data about what drugs are currently being consumed on the street. This is particularly important given the ever-increasing market for synthetic drugs, which are being created at an alarmingly rapid rate.
No evidence has been found which correlates safe consumption rooms with increased drug use or delayed entry into drug rehabilitation treatment, and fears that drug markets might be facilitated and supported by such interventions are baseless.
Meanwhile, in Australia…
Rather than expressing delight for an idea that has been proven to effectively mitigate drug-related harm in the community, save lives and prevent the spread of disease, the president of Liverpool’s Chamber of Commerce was worried about the reputation of the town being harmed as a result of the intervention. Similarly, Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has argued that drug consumption rooms do little to assuage drug related crime (that was never the point of them, and evidence has proven that the reverse is true). Doyle has also made pernicious claims that consumption rooms support addiction rather than discourage it. This is also untrue, because consumption rooms give people opportunities to access treatment services that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.
Ice is a pretty commonly used drug, and the myths around misadventures associated with its consumption are grossly exaggerated. I started an interesting online discussion about this issue which brought some really interesting points to the fore. For example:
The concept of an ice room is a bit different to that of a safe injecting room. Mainly that people will be totally booting and on edge, as opposed to relaxing and subsequently sleeping. May require security guards…
Wait, what? People booting and on edge? Need for security guards? This reminds me of something; now, what are those things called again?
Oh. That’s right. Nightclubs – places where you’ll be far more likely to encounter nefarious activities and drug-related violence due to charged, energetic atmospheres, fuelled by cocktails of unknown stimulants, washed down with cocktails of depressants served by bar staff.
Woe betide us should we ever deem drinking establishments unsafe and shut those down. Oh no. Drinking culture is far too quintessentially Australian for that to ever happen.
Hope does exist, however, in examples led in other Western settlements. Take North America for example: in Canada, Justin Trudeau has shown us that political leaders are willing to break moulds and are capable of crazy stuff like giving cabinet ministers policy portfolios that are actually within their professional purview. By pure chance (I could have cited Portugal as an excellent example) much of the research I found for my discussion of safe inhalation rooms has emerged from Canada, a place which, interestingly, is often anecdotally described in many ways as being culturally parallel with Australia.
Thankfully, whilst a contingent of fuddy-duddy Australian politicians and business people are grinding out uneducated, non-evidenced comments about assumed superficial disadvantages of safe inhalation rooms, there is still hope. There is hope because along with drug law reformers Matt Noffs and Dr Alex Wodak saying they’ll open an inhalation room with or without Government support, determined, proficient, well-informed experts are gritting their teeth and vowing to establish such centres because, quite simply, it’s the socially responsible thing to do. This is the kind of leadership that was missing from the dialogue of far too many many of the candidates up for election on Saturday.
So in conclusion, when I voted on Saturday, I voted in a heartfelt yet evidence-informed way, based on the few policy issues that I can still cobble together some interest in; positions on harm minimisation strategies chief among them. That meant voting for some parties with progressive policy positions who are unlikely to secure seats in the upper or lower house. To vote on party ideology alone is a lazy, wasteful vote. It’s what people do when they can’t be bothered with being thoughtful.
And as we twiddle our thumbs and wait for the final election result, I shall watch and fervently hope that we do end up with a hung parliament that gives way to meaningful dialogue about important policy issues; ones that may bring us closer to speed with the meaningful social actions happening in other parts of the world.