Tele: Opinion/ Alcohol not injecting room the real worry for the revival of Kings Cross

Alas The Daily Telegraph’s reporters lying in wait for weeks in a hotel room directly opposite, their cameras trained on our entrance, missed the scoop. The flickering light of the TV emanating from behind the closed curtains suggested they may have been distracted by that night’s State of Origin match. (Queensland won again.) And so, unannounced, 20 years ago this year, the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross opened, becoming the first supervised injecting facility in the English-speaking world.

At the time, it seemed like that opening day on May 6 might never arrive. From the moment it was recommended by the Carr government’s drug summit two years before, the centre’s establishment was mired in controversy.

The Vatican intervened to stop the Sisters of Charity operating the centre (the Uniting Church stepped in); the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s International Narcotics Control Board warned Australia off, and then prime minister John Howard was explicitly opposed, along with the Salvation Army’s Major Brian Watters.

Failed Supreme Court proceedings initiated by the now defunct Kings Cross Chamber of Commerce and Tourism delayed the opening. And though the Telegraph missed its first moments, within an hour all five TV stations were out front.Advertisement

Thankfully, such intense media scrutiny settled over the ensuing years and we were able to get on with the serious business of providing a life-saving health service for the most marginalised of drug users already dwelling in that area. During this time almost 18,000 drug users attended, and some 1.2 million drug injecting episodes occurred in this clinical environment instead of on the streets of Kings Cross; 10,541 overdoses were successfully treated without a single fatality, dramatically reducing ambulance callouts to the area; and about 18,500 referrals were made to drug rehab and other services.

Repeated random telephone surveys undertaken as part of the centre’s independent evaluation showed high levels of local community support, the most recent finding that 78 per cent of residents and 70 per cent of businesses supported the centre’s operation at its current location on what’s colloquially known as “the strip”. The only complaint is that it’s easily missed, the entrance being so innocuous.

So, you can perhaps understand my dismay at this week’s Herald headline: “Kings Cross businesses want removal of injecting centre to revive strip.” In the article the Kings Cross Liquor Accord’s coordinator, Doug Grand, spruiked the notion that if the centre was removed, the drug users in the area would also somehow miraculously disappear, boosting the area’s recovery from the lockout laws that will be axed next month.

The reality is that those thousands of injecting episodes that have been occurring there would simply return to the local environs, which would surely be counter-productive to the accord’s push to enhance the area’s attractiveness to its prospective bar customers.

It should be recognised that not only has the centre saved many lives and improved the prospects of those often deemed to be beyond hope, by moving drug injecting off the streets, it has actually enabled the area’s gentrification over these past 20 years. While not seeking credit for this, the centre certainly takes exception to the implication that its presence impedes this.

Grand says of drug users: “Some of them get abusive, some of them get aggressive.” He needs to speak to his members about just how abusive and aggressive their alcohol-affected clientele can be. Has he forgotten why the lockout laws were introduced in the first place?

Kings Cross had become nightmarish on weekend nights, with hundreds of drunken revellers spilling out onto the streets – plastic glasses required to reduce the “glassings”, which had become common. (Glad to see this requirement is remaining in place.) The hospital emergency and police data for violent incidents including the tragic deaths of two young men told the story.

Rather than opportunistically focusing on the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, the Kings Cross Liquor Accord should be looking to itself to make sure that this shocking scenario, all of which developed on its watch, doesn’t recur.

I am at least heartened that our Premier has always been supportive of the centre. At the very beginning of her first term in office in 2003, Gladys Berejiklian came to the centre to be briefed about its work. Along with several other LNP opposition MPs, she repeatedly voted with the NSW government in favour of the centre’s continuation until its trial status was finally lifted in 2010.
We hope that others will also base their opinions on the mountain of evidence available showing that it is a quiet achiever doing a hard job well – now and into the future.

Dr Ingrid van Beek was the founding medical director of the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (2000 – 2008).

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