I rise to make a contribution in relation to the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Amendment (Medically Supervised Injecting Centre) Bill 2017.
This is a bill that offers a framework for establishing a medically supervised injecting centre trial.
It is in response to the increasing number of heroin deaths in North Richmond and is to be conducted on a trial basis only, for a two-year period.
I heard the minister indicate that there had been up to 190 deaths in the area and that that was part of the driving force for this to happen.
By chance I was in Sydney in early October to visit a new hospital that was being built there, for the purpose of looking at ideas for the new hospital redevelopment that we are having undertaken in Shepparton at the moment and also to visit a cancer centre. For some reason we decided to build into that trip a visit to the Kings Cross safe injecting room. Why? Because it seemed to be on the agenda and seemed to be a good idea to find out as much as I could about this issue because there was a flag up already. The committee was looking at the issue, and it seemed to me that there would be action in this area.
Looking at the Kings Cross centre, it is somewhat different I think to what is proposed here. This safe injecting room in North Richmond will have much more of a focus on health; it must be run by a medical practitioner. While indeed the person in charge in Sydney is also a medical practitioner, it is perhaps more a referral service than anything else. In that centre we had the opportunity to talk with the person who operates it and met a number of members of staff. We were able to observe people coming in, taking their drugs and mixing them up. It is not just heroin that is allowed in that centre; clearly other drugs are being used. We could observe people collecting a spoon and clean water and crushing up drugs to inject. Generally speaking the process is that they will do that, pass out to another room, where they usually wait for approximately 15 minutes to be observed and see how they are travelling, and then move on. They effectively come in the front door and go out the back door.
It was pretty confronting, I have to say, to see people coming in in this way. I suppose if you live in North Richmond, you have been very much exposed to people on the street behaving in this way — shooting up and leaving needles — and indeed there have been a number of deaths, and that has really prompted the community action around this issue.
I have a number of concerns about this bill. It is being established in an existing community health centre. While they have no doubt agreed to that, it does raise concerns in my mind in relation to the separateness of this facility as compared to people perhaps using the maternal and child health service or coming in to see a doctor for other reasons. These are people who are often very long-term addicts. They are often unwell. They are carrying drugs when they come in to use, and it would be highly undesirable in my view for them to be in any way mixing with, interacting with or even entering through the same door as the remainder of the community health service. I hope that these things will be addressed in a way that makes sure that does not occur.
In the Sydney facility there was a security guard on duty at all times. We noticed him in the front room, and on a later occasion, when someone was suffering some ill effects out the back, the security guard came through and was offering some assistance to the other staff members who were there. Again, it is important from the point of view of staff security that there is someone there to ensure the safety of employees who are working in the place.
In this case we are told that ice will not be allowed to be used, which is again a difference from the Sydney experience, where there does seem to be a much freer attitude to the medications that are used. In this case it seems to be the heroin addicts who are the most likely to be using it and others, I understand, will not be. The bill does not say anything about that, but I am told that will appear in the regulations. There is going to be no testing of the drugs on site, I understand, so people will come in with what they have got and in a sense it will be, in many instances, perhaps hard to know what they are proposing to use. That in itself is an issue. They will be provided with a clean syringe and anything else they might need to assist them in injecting.
It is a trial, and it is very important that there is a proper evaluation done of this. Now, there is to be a review. I think it is important that throughout this whole process there is a very close watch kept on every aspect of this trial because it is something that we can seriously learn from. There is an opportunity to provide people with access to a readily available health service. I think one of the things we know and one of the reasons we like to see hubs in our communities, where all services are gathered together, is the fact that if you are walking from one door to the next, there is a much higher chance of someone accessing a service than if they have to leave the premises, make an appointment and go somewhere else later or on another day. So there is an advantage no doubt in that being part of the centre.
The police have clearly been ineffective in being able to deal with the Richmond situation up-to-date and they support a more health-based approach. Clearly the criminal justice system is unable to deal with these people, and it is not desirable really that it does. I think given the prison space we have available, in any event you would not be wanting to see the sort of people who are suffering from addiction in this way filling up prison cells for that reason alone. We have to accept that there will be problems, and we need to identify them as we go along and make sure that they are dealt with.
One of the things that apparently happens in a centre like this is it can suddenly become very busy when someone has arrived outside or in the area with drugs. It was something that was commented on at the Sydney facility, where it was quiet for a while, for about half an hour, and then within a short time people were coming in very quickly and the comment was that some drugs had arrived in the area. This is very confronting and very difficult, I think, and it certainly raises issues around the whole criminal justice system, around the fact that we have laws that make these things illegal but we are faced with a situation where we effectively have to turn a blind eye to enable an entirely different approach and trial to be set up to try to deal with these things.
In my area there are people who are addicted to drugs. We have a problem in even getting up a methadone program that works in Shepparton, and it has been a real challenge for a long time and is something I hope we can address over time. We have huge problems in attracting addiction specialists to our hospital or indeed to any facility in the area, so again, a real problem.
There is always a lack of services in regional areas for people, and I asked a question this afternoon of the Minister for Mental Health, who is sitting here, about drug rehabilitation services in our area. It is my view that these sorts of facilities — drug rehabilitation centres, even this safe injecting room — are really about caring for people and providing people with support. It would be unrealistic to think we are going to see an amazing outcome in terms of rehabilitation and better outcomes for people. There may be some, but the experience is that the numbers are not great. It is to me about caring for people, giving them a safe place and an opportunity to access other services.
I support the trial period and I will be watching with interest to see how it goes. Of course I therefore support the bill.