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Victoria: Open Family Foundation may open safe injecting rooms for heroin users; National Council on Drugs says problems would outweigh possible advantages.



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PETER CAVE: In a move which is certain to add fire to the drugs debate, a charity group which helps young heroin users, is planning to open safe injecting rooms in Melbourne. The Open Family Foundation will release details about its proposal later this morning. The idea has already sparked renewed debate with the Chairman of the Prime Minister's National Council on Drugs, Major Brian Watters, saying it will send out a message of acceptance about heroin.

 

Mark Willesee reports from Melbourne.

 

MARK WILLESEE: In Victoria, deaths from heroin continue to outnumber the state's road toll. Overnight there were another 15 overdoses, one fatal - this time an 18-year-old woman who died in the toilets of a fast food outlet after shooting up. Eddie Micallef sees the impact of the heroin trade every day. The Labor backbencher's Springvale electorate is one of the hardest hit in Australia, and he says it's time safe injecting rooms were given a go.

 

EDDIE MICALLEF: Well, in walking down the street only yesterday I came across a young woman, who was obviously spaced out, with a group of young people who were obviously users. I mean, she had to be restrained from walking across the road under traffic, and she was … I mean, just guessing her age she would have been about 18. I mean, it's very sad to see that situation, and that's the reality we're dealing with.

 

MARK WILLESEE: What about the argument, though, that safe injecting rooms would somehow legitimise or force the decriminalisation of heroin use?

 

EDDIE MICALLEF: I've heard that argument but what is the alternative: to go on the way we're going, with over 16 people dying this year and a projected … over 400 deaths in Victoria? While we have this intellectual debate over whether we're condoning or until we're able to deal with the illness, we should give them proper facilities to use rather than allowing them to put themselves in the position where they either overdose, get AIDS or Hep C. We have 11,000 new cases of Hep C each year and it's becoming quite a serious national disaster.

 

MARK WILLESEE: One man who has seen the disaster first-hand is the Salvation Army's Major Brian Watters who is also the Chairman of the Prime Minister's National Council on Drugs. He believes safe injecting rooms would send the wrong message to heroin users.

 

BRIAN WATTERS: To me the practical problems outweigh the possible advantages. I keep believing that we should be very aware of messages, and if we are in any way sending out any sort of message of acceptance of illicit drug use, and particularly of intravenous drug use, we're doing a disservice to the larger populace, quite apart from those who are presently using drugs. These are my major concerns.

 

MARK WILLESEE: What about the overdosing, though? That's obviously a problem in a place like Melbourne. Would it help save lives if there….

 

BRIAN WATTERS: Hopefully, if those things were established there'd be trained medical staff there who could provide the sort of service that would be needed. To me there's a certain horror in that picture of people standing by waiting for people to overdose and reviving them, or providing the facilities for them to do that.

 

MARK WILLESEE: You have raised the issue of legality too and how these things will operate with the police, et cetera, but apparently several already operate in Kings Cross. What do you know about them and does it seem that if they are already operating there then possibly they could operate in a place like Melbourne?

 

BRIAN WATTERS: They are not legal. I am told of at least one … I know of at least one that's operating illegally there, and I am also told that there are a number of ambulance calls there every day to take away the people that have overdosed and dropped there at that place.

 

PETER CAVE: Major Brian Watters.