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New South Wales: three MPs visit the Netherlands and Switzerland to investigate provision of safe injecting rooms for heroin users

STEVE CHASE: As the community analyses the paedophilia findings, three New South Wales MPs are in Europe tonight investigating another problem highlighted by the Wood Royal Commission. John Howard has set up a national task force to review drug policies, but the New South Wales MPs are visiting the Netherlands and Switzerland to look at the provision of safe injecting rooms for heroin users in those countries. Europe correspondent, Katie Cronin, joined the delegation as they went to the Dutch city of Rotterdam and met Reverend Hans Visser, who runs a centre where addicts can shoot up, smoke heroin and buy drugs from approved dealers.

KATIE CRONIN: Reverend Hans Visser of the Dutch Presbyterian Church started his project in the mid-1980s in secret. It was a year before a journalist discovered that he'd been providing a safe place for addicts to inject themselves with heroin as well as offering them food, advice and a place to meet. Now, more than a decade later, the Paulis Kirk (?) in Rotterdam is seen as a credible model for the care of chronic addicts.

In the basement of the church is the tolerance zone and, here, New South Wales parliamentarians, Patricia Staunton, John Jobling and Ian Cohen, came to see a safe injecting room. There are in fact a series of rooms, starting with a big central space with a bar selling bread, tea and coffee, where people can arrange counselling and health treatment, but where they can also buy heroin or cocaine.

Reverend Visser has managed to convince the city's police and local politicians to allow three dealers, screened by the police and approved by Visser himself, to sell the drugs that addicts would otherwise buy on the street. Hans Visser:

HANS VISSER: The Government here knows who I am. We have a rather good relationship; sometimes there are heavy conflicts, but with the local politicians, I have a good relationship. And I have seen that in the past they give support, they give me the benefit of the doubt. It is important .... - the benefit of the doubt.

I am in the border of legally, legal. If I am crossing the border and I go too far, it is dangerous. If I have no courage to cross the border, there is no progress. What I do is I cross the border and I try to press the Government to change the policy, to change the law, to change the rules, and here in Rotterdam we have seen, at this moment, tolerance zones are accepted, that the regulation of the trade in drugs is accepted. Policemen say to me, 'It is the best policy. We want to know who are the dealers. We will control them. We don't like the black market under the ground. It is dangerous.' I think there is success, but I know that there are many Dutch men, there are some political parties who have many objections against my work, but, in my opinion, it becomes a minority.

KATIE CRONIN: Reverend Visser says he is not involved in the sale of drugs at all and the church gets no commission or share of the proceeds. Addicts are only allowed in once they've been given a pass which is checked by local police to ascertain their criminal record. They're forbidden to sell drugs bought in the church to anyone outside, prices are the same as on the street, and samples are checked from time to time for quality. Once addicts have made their purchase, they can go to one of two rooms: one set aside for heroin smokers who sprinkle their drugs into cigarettes, and one for injecting users. Few of the addicts were keen to talk, but Wilhelm, who's been coming to the Paulis Kirk for 10 or 12 years, spoke to me about how the place helps him.

WILHELM:I'm coming here around 10, 12 years. Before I was not in home and you could sleep here in the night, and now I come here every day.

KATIE CRONIN: Do you come here to get your drugs and to take your drugs as well?

WILHELM: Yes, this is the best place. If always you could .... and no problems up the street, you can better use it here.

KATIE CRONIN: Reverend Visser doesn't pretend to have any easy solutions. His visitors are he most chronic users; many are immigrants from former Dutch colonies in Surinam and the Caribbean, and on average they're between 30 and 40 years old. Teenagers who turn up are pointed firmly towards drug treatment centres and local health facilities. Nonetheless, despite the hopelessness of many of the addicts' circumstances, the atmosphere is calm, violence is not tolerated, and the rooms are clean and tidy. A senior New South Wales health official, Andrew Penman, who's accompanying the parliamentarians, was impressed.

ANDREW PENMAN: Well, it's an eye opener and it has quite an impact when you walk in here, partly because of what it is, but a little more affection. I think it's actually more pleasant and I guess, in many ways, more civilised than many bars I've been to at various times in my life.

STEVE CHASE: Andrew Penman, who's the Director of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in New South Wales, and Katie Cronin prepared that report for PM.