The one thing uniting both sides of CBD safe injecting room debate
While the potential for a safe injecting room in the CBD is an emotive and often vexed debate, both sides are in fierce agreement on one point …
It was a mere footnote to a press release that spoke volumes of the Victorian Government’s handling of the CBD injecting room rollout.
Buried at the bottom of the government’s announcement that the North Richmond safe injecting facility would become a permanent service after a five-year trial, was an all too familiar note.
It said that the crucial report recommending where a proposed CBD room should be located would be delivered “in mid-2023”.
Except there was no explanation as to why, yet again, it had been pushed back.
Late last year, before the state election, there was a promise it would be delivered shortly after in “early 2023”.
Prior to that, in May 2022 budget time it had assured locals it would release the report “by the end of 2022”.
A year prior, in May 2021, it committed to a public release by “the end of this year”, and so on. You get the point.
The story of a medically supervised injecting room in the CBD has been mishandled by the Victorian Government, the impact of which has impacted both sides of an often-inflammatory debate.
For those against the proposed facility, including some CBD locals and close-by business owners, the uncertainty of whether the room will be located at the former Yooralla building on Flinders St — purchased by the government in 2021 for the purpose of the injecting room — has caused anxiety and apprehension.
For those in favour of the facility, including CEOs of 78 health, welfare and community groups that signed an open letter to the Premier Daniel Andrews in March urging him to start the CBD trial, postponing its opening could cost lives.
Both sides, however, are united on one point: continued inaction was damaging.
Prolonged delays have only served to fan the flames of division, perhaps best highlighted by Melbourne’s most circulated newspaper featuring business owners wielding baseball bats as part of a story on the issue.
“We need to look beyond the emotion, judgement and fear, and assess the hard evidence,” the joint letter urged.
The government has said mitigating factors outside of its control have caused the delays but is yet to acknowledge even once its mishandling of the rollout.
The first of these, and arguably key reason why — almost three years since it announced plans for an injecting room within the City of Melbourne — it was still yet to announce a location, is its eggs-in-one-basket approach to begin with.
Back in June 2020, as it announced plans for the state’s second injecting room, it immediately nominated the cohealth facility at 53 Victoria St to house the new facility.
Rather than cast a wider net, the government said this was the “preferred site” without consulting the City of Melbourne.
The council’s backlash was immediate and unsurprising, firmly opposing the location due to its proximity to Queen Victoria Market and some vulnerable affordable housing residents at Drill Hall next door.
The government eventually backed down in the first half of 2021, putting it back to square one.
This considerable error early in the process has never been acknowledged by the government. Rather, it has pointed to COVID-19 and the “shifting patterns of drug harms in the CBD” as a reason for continued delays.
Mr Andrews said a report by former police commissioner Ken Lay, set to include a recommended injecting room site and originally due by the end of 2020, had been pushed back due to this.
“More time has been needed because, just like the pandemic has had an impact on our patterns of movement and all sorts of different elements of our lives, it’s also had an impact on how many people are coming to the city to use [drugs], where they’re using — all of those things are unsettled, if you like,” the Premier said on March 7.
“Things that were established patterns are no longer established. And common sense tells you that that’s a perfectly reasonable thing.”
However, for those on the ground in the CBD, dangerous drug use had returned to pre-COVID levels.
Cohealth CEO Nicole Bartholomeusz said in February that the organisation’s City Street Health outreach team, which operates in the CBD seven days a week, had responded to an increased number of overdoses in recent months.
She said the trend “shows no sign of reversing”.
While not CBD-specific, heroin overdoses across Victoria had bounced back even higher than before the pandemic.
A recent Coroners Court report showed that 132 people had died of heroin overdoses in the first half of 2022.
This meant 2022 (data for the second half of the year was yet to be collated) was on track to surpass any year in the decade prior to COVID-19 for the highest annual rate of heroin-related overdose deaths.
In 2017, the worst year on that metric, there were 220 deaths.
“What the coroner’s data tells us is that despite the pandemic, people are still using drugs and dying from preventable overdoses,” Ms Bartholomeusz said.
Perhaps underlining the government’s mismanagement of the rollout is the fact that Treasurer Tim Pallas has twice now confirmed that the government in fact has the Lay report in its hands.
Twice, however, he has had to retract those comments.
“The government is still considering the report we’ve received from former police commissioner Lay,” Mr Pallas said in May 2022 on 3AW.
When asked to confirm this, a government spokesperson swiftly told CBD News the treasurer had in fact “misspoken”.
On March 1, Mr Pallas confused the situation again when he claimed the government had “absolutely” received the report.
“Absolutely — Mr Lay provided us with a report and the government is considering that report together with seeking to update that report,” he said.
Later that day, Mr Pallas issued a statement which said he had ‘misspoke’ and apologised for the confusion.
The Premier has confirmed the Lay report would be released in mid-2023.
But given the government’s continued delays on the issue since 2020, few are holding their breath. •