Christian Compassion and Injecting Rooms

There has been a lot of debate lately about the issue of heroin injecting rooms. Voices from all sides are being heard on the issue, and the controversy often sheds more heat than light.  The Christian community has also weighed into the debate, with differing responses.

One recent example of the ‘yes’ case was an editorial featured in a popular Australian Christian magazine. The editorial asked what Jesus would do in such a situation. It concluded that Jesus, who showed compassion to all, would favour injecting rooms. The editorial argued that this is God’s “response to his broken messed up world”. It continued: “God’s response to the shame Adam and Eve experienced through their folly was to provide clothes to help them. Their shame and guilt were not condoned by God’s action, but they were met in their need. . . . Such an attitude would lead us to provide safe injecting rooms as we meet our neighbors in their need”.

This editorial – like the response of so many Christians – is of course well-intentioned. But it is also seriously mistaken. First, it needs to be pointed out that even advocates like Prof Penington no longer call them “safe” but “supervised” injecting rooms. Heroin can never be safely injected, any more than one can safely play with a live hand grenade.

The analogy of God clothing Adam and Eve completely misses the point. Providing clothing was not a sinful act, nor did it in any way keep Adam and Eve in a state of destructive behaviour. Providing addicts with heroin does both.

Moreover, this editorial overlooks a number of important issues. For example, what evidence exists that injecting rooms actually save lives? The truth is, there is none. European experiences with injecting rooms (as in Amsterdam or Zurich or Frankfurt) have not delivered any conclusive proof that they have achieved their desired aims.

The claim is nonetheless often made that no one has ever died in a European injecting room. This is a completely misleading figure. If an addict shoots up in a “safe” injecting room, steps outside and falls over dead, this is not counted in the figures because only deaths within the facilities, not anywhere else, are recorded.

Indeed, injecting room advocates often present misleading information or make use of deceptive arguments. Take for example the way the debate is so often presented: “What would you prefer, having addicts shoot up in dangerous, dirty back alleys or have addicts shoot up in clean, medically-supervised rooms?” Of course if these are the only two options, the latter is to be preferred. But this is a false dilemma. There is a third option: not shooting up at all. Shooting galleries do nothing to encourage addicts to get off drugs.

Appeal is often made to the Dutch experience. However, I have lived in the Netherlands for a five-year period. And frankly, I don’t want to see what takes place there happening here. The city of Amsterdam is awash with drugs and crime. Indeed, drug-related crime is four times the rate of the US. You can’t walk down a street of central Amsterdam without being accosted by drug pushers and addicts. I lost count of how many times our push bikes were stolen by the druggies to help support their habits. I don’t want that cesspool of crime, drugs and violence to be replicated here.

The name Orlando McDonald may not be well known, but should be. He is the man who introduced the concept of safe injecting rooms in Arnhem, in the Netherlands, ten years ago. He admitted to a visitor recently that not one person has ever gotten off heroin in those ten years. Not one! In fact, addicts said that if it weren’t for all the heroin they were being supplied with by this program, they might have been off the stuff years ago.

Yet that is exactly what some people want to do in Australia. They want to supply heroin to addicts. That’s about as helpful as supplying whiskey to alcoholics. This will simply create life-long addicts. We don’t want to help these people. We want to keep them strung out for life. Such a policy is morally bankrupt and socially disastrous.

Dr Shane Darke of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre put it this way: “Every time you inject heroin you are taking a risk that you will die. Anyone who tells you there is a safe way to inject heroin, well that’s a lie.”

Heroin is illegal because it is dangerous. Heroin is banned because it can kill people. It needs to stay banned. We do not need safe injecting rooms in Australia. We need a policy of harm prevention. Drug-free people do not die from overdoses. We need to get people off dangerous drugs. Addicts need treatment and rehabilitation, not a life sentence to an early grave.

The word “compassion” is often heard when the issue of injecting rooms is discussed. But what is compassionate about keeping a person strung out on an addictive mind-altering drug? What is compassionate about keeping a person enchained in a destructive lifestyle? What is compassionate about merely delaying the death of an addict?

Compassion demands that we do all we can to free a person in bondage to deadly drugs. Compassion demands that we do all we can to get people off life-controlling substances. Compassion demands that we provide genuine alternatives, like detox and rehab. Our goal should be to deliver people from the oppression of the devil, not keep them enslaved to it.

Jesus showed compassion to people by breaking them free of their bondages. We are called to do the same. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that people can be set free and given a new life. Injecting rooms do not do this. Thus they are neither Christian nor compassionate.

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