The Case against Heroin Injecting Rooms

The so-called harm-minimisation crowd is at it again. Recently we have had yet another call for medically-supervised heroin injecting rooms in Australia. One such proposal is for Footscray in Melbourne’s west. The claim is that this will save lives and be good for addicts.

We have had these debates for some years now. They follow the lead from harm reduction or harm minimisation strategies, which are effectively ‘put up the white flag of surrender’ approaches. They admit defeat at the outset, claiming folks are always going to use drugs, so let’s try to make things a bit better for them as they do.

Such policies stand in marked contrast to harm elimination policies. These approaches seek to eliminate the harm by eliminating the cause of danger. Instead of keeping people on deadly drug addictions, they seek to get them off. Sweden used to have very liberal policies on drugs, but have in the past few decades radically reversed direction.

They take a strong “just say no” approach, and have produced very positive results. Their tough-love approach to drugs includes mandatory detox and rehab. And their harm elimination programmes have become so successful that they are now the bench mark for those seeking to offer real help to addicts.

Yet here in Australia it seems we are still tied to old, failed policies. The leftist policy makers here refuse to countenance the idea that the best thing to do for those who are on life-threatening drugs is to get them off. But keeping them strung out on their addiction is no help at all.

Indeed, the case against heroin injecting rooms is quite simple. Every time the addict shoots up it may be his last hit. To provide state-sanction for such dangerous activity is irresponsible in the extreme. It is playing Russian roulette with the addict’s life. Even earlier advocates like Prof Penington in Victoria stopped calling them “safe” but “supervised” injecting rooms. Heroin can never be safely injected, any more than one can safely play with a live hand grenade.

Injecting room advocates often make deceptive arguments, such as: “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.

Orlando McDonald is the man who introduced the concept of injecting rooms in the Netherlands a few decades ago. He has admitted that not one person has ever gotten off heroin in this period. 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.

Supplying heroin to addicts is as helpful as supplying whiskey to alcoholics. This will simply create life-long addicts. This is not helping people. This is keeping them strung out for life. Such a policy is morally bankrupt and socially disastrous.

And we have proof of this from other experiments in shooting galleries, most notably the Kings Cross injecting centre. Careful studies of this have found that it is certainly not the panacea that many hoped it would be. One assessment of it is worth noting.

Lucy Sullivan begins her study this way: “The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from the four official Reports on the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC), which together cover its operation from its opening in May 2001 to April 2007 (six years), is that the unavailability of heroin is of far greater significance in preventing drug overdose deaths than the availability of a ‘safe’ injecting facility – in fact the latter shows no measurable effect at all.

“This outcome should be of considerable importance to the future of the Centre, and for any plans for replication elsewhere, in that preventing heroin deaths was a dominant political argument for its establishment, and the one that held most sway with the public. It is now clear that the Sydney MSIC was established on false premises.”

She continues: “The MSIC opened just when the drought was at its most extreme. It briefly eliminated deaths in the Kings Cross area entirely, where the rate had hitherto varied between 9 and 1 per month, and in the rest of New South Wales they plunged to a low of 6 in May 2001 after varying between approximately 45 and 15 over the previous three years. In the pre-MSIC period, deaths in the Kings Cross area averaged 4 per month, and this fell to 1 per month in the post-MSIC period.

“The equivalent figures in the rest of New South Wales were 27 and 8, respectively. The falls in average monthly deaths were statistically significant in both cases, being by about 70%, and did not differ significantly in the two locations. This means that, on the basis of these statistics, the presence of the MSIC in Kings Cross cannot be credited with any preventative effect on overdose deaths subsequent to its establishment there. The fall was due to the heroin drought.”

After examining more of the evidence she concludes as follows: “At the time of the opening of the MSIC, a significant factor for ID users welfare came into play, namely, the extreme fall in availability of heroin at the end of 2000, and an only partial recovery thereafter. As a result, it has become absolutely clear that overdose deaths fall when there is a fall in heroin use, not as a result of the occasional use of safe injecting centres – and it seems that the voluntary use of such centres will only ever be occasional. This outcome effectively disproves the much vaunted claim of the drug legalization lobby that making the illegal drugs freely available would dissipate their harmfulness.

“Given the belief that withdrawal of a heroin habit is a dangerous and difficult process, on the face of it, it is surprising that it was apparently achieved so readily by so many when heroin became unavailable; and the rebound, with a return of supplies, was to much less than the former level. The so-called trial of the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre supports the common sense view that restriction of access to drugs, in which illegality plays a major role, is crucial to the prevention of drug overdose deaths.”

The simple truth is, heroin is illegal because it is dangerous. Heroin is banned because it can kill people. It needs to stay banned. We do not need 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.

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12 Replies to “The Case against Heroin Injecting Rooms”

  1. My sister died a heroin addict while making use of free needles etc. This program, under the heading of ‘Harm Reduction’, has reduced nothing! HIV & HepC still rise in infection rates! I argued that while I wanted my sister to LIVE, they were helping her to DIE! My relief is that I was witnessing to her, & come her resurection, she will know the reason & the hope offered, so to put out her arms to Him! All addicts need HELP! And it needs to be law to make it so!

    Stewart Robinson

  2. Whilst I’m not convinced any war on drugs is going to solve these problems (or not have harmful unintended consequences) I am definitely not ambivalent on injecting rooms.

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that it hasn’t worked and there are consequences for those that have to live or run a business in those areas;

    “‘The Cross has gone downhill dramatically,’ says resident Robbie Hall, who has lived in Darlinghurst for 32 years. ‘For someone who never feared walking around here, I decided not to go up the lane for milk last night.’ As she showed me around her neighbourhood yesterday, she pointed out the shuttered shops that went out of business on Darlinghurst Rd after the Uniting Church opened the drug injecting room, formally known as the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, in 2001. There are for lease signs in five empty shops on either side of the injecting room, which is conveniently located opposite the main entrance to Kings Cross railway station. Drug users loiter in groups outside, and dealers walk briskly nearby. Police were nowhere to be seen among this bustling activity yesterday. Methamphetamines (ice) now comprise at least 8 per cent of substances used in the injecting room and Hall says much of the aggression in the Cross can be sheeted back to these facilities.”

    Damien Spillane

  3. I love that these people are quite happy to nominate where these places should be. I’ll bet it is not next door to where they live though. Having worked with addicts for many,many years now I am convinced that there is no benefit in such places. In fact I find it demeaning that anyone should suggest that we find ways to keep people using heroin, or any other drug. Addicts are people and we should be offering them a freedom that gives them goals and aspirations.

    Warwick Murphy

  4. Harm prevention = Objective: No Harm
    Harm Minimisation = Objective: Less Harm (maybe)

    John Angelico

  5. I can’t help but notice the significance of the uniting church in much of the Lefty tolerance gibberish. And it’s always the same, their wisdom comes not from a lesson learned in history or an ex-addict – No. It comes from some middle class approach. A facile approach to a horrible drug problem.
    Daniel Kempton

  6. I understand that the Greens also support the harm minimisation approach. All the more reason to not vote for them.
    Ross McPhee

  7. I am wondering if anyone here truly believes drug prohibition would eliminate drugs from Australia?
    Lee Herridge, WA

  8. Thanks Lee

    But of course you commit the very logical fallacy that I speak to in my article. You think that it is either a case of complete laissez faire with no government control of drugs, or current policies, but somehow with zero fatalities. That is a foolish false dilemma, when we have a third option which I have been arguing for: a ‘just say no’ approach to drugs in which we can see genuine reduction in, if not elimination of, harm, addiction, and death due to dangerous drugs such as heroin. And that third option is already being successfully carried out in places such as Sweden. I will take the evidence-based results any day over mere faith in libertarian ideology. Indeed, as I have said before, because I am a believer, I must choose biblical Christianity over radical secular libertarianism when they conflict – as they often do.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Trust the heretics at the Uniting Church to be a part in inflicting death upon those who most desperately need to hear the gospel rather than having their sin encouraged.

    Mario Del Giudice

  10. What if cigarette smoking and beer drinking was illegal, would the govt. have smoking and grog rooms?
    But there is a point that we are missing out on alot of tax money from drugs. Only problem being the burgled households would be the ones really paying that tax.
    Another point is why are we putting the boot into unhealthy drug taking, but glorifying Homosexual sex acts, even teaching this in our public schools? (regards to Mr Jim Wallace of ACL)
    Johannes Archer

  11. Bill I’m hoping you could help me with a problem I’m having with a friend, he’s 20 years old and promoting marijuana on facebook and having a conversation with him but I’m getting out of my depth. I’m a pre-Christian dope user and I know it’s bad but he’s saying things I have no argument for.
    For eg; he said the declaration of independence was written on hemp paper? Dope cures cancer?
    Look bill its silly stuff but I wish I had some hard facts to throw at him.
    I know he is smoking this stuff and he’s trying to promote it.
    This maybe a bit jumbled because I’m at work and rushing.
    Thank you.
    Daniel Kempton

  12. Thanks Daniel

    No, the Constitution was not written on hemp – it was written on parchment. Even if it were, so what? What does that have to do with smoking it? You might as well argue that we should smoke cow hide, since many earlier documents were written on animal skins.

    And no, marijuana does not cure cancer. Some want to use marijuana as a means of pain relief, whether for cancer or other health matters. But that too has nothing to do with legalising marijuana so you can get high and destroy yourself. But I spend time on all this here:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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