Saturday, 11 November 2017

Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation dinner, Wayside Chapel, Potts Point

The dinner took place last night. As well as supporters for change from the broader community, there were a number of notables in the crowd, including Canadian Senator Larry Campbell, Adam Searle, the Leader of the Opposition in the NSW Legislative Council, Peter Baume who was a NSW Liberal senator, John Nicholson who used to be a judge and who now helps run Rainbow Lodge, a service for people recently released from prison, Richard Di Natale the head of the Australian Greens, former Western Australian Premier Geoff Gallup, and Dr Alex Wodak AM, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. Brook Boney, a journalist from radio station Triple-J, was MC. At my table there were Judy and John who had come up for the event from Melbourne, where they live in North Richmond, the location for the just-announced medically-supervised injecting centre.

Boney said that the first drug bans in Australia happened in Victoria, NSW and South Australia in the 19th century against the smoking of opium, which was a habit of the Chinese workers in the goldfields. She added that, now, up to 60 percent of people in prison allocate the reason for their incarceration to a drug cause.

Peter Baume said that Margaret Thatcher opened the world’s first national needle syringe program, in Britain. In Sydney, the Wayside Chapel hosted the country’s first supervised injecting room starting in May 1999 as an act of civil disobedience. Ray Richmond was the pastor at the time. Ingrid van Beek (who is Geoff Gallop’s wife and who founded Australia's first state-sponsored medically-supervised injecting room, in Kings Cross) told the room that the Wayside Chapel facility became politicised in the runup to the 1999 state election. The 1999 NSW Drug Summit that was held at Parliament House over five days in May led to the opening of a medically-supervised injecting room in Sydney.

Van Beek said she hoped that evidence is what informs political decisions but admitted that recently in Victoria it had been deaths that had driven change. She recalled that in 1996 and 1997 Bob Carr visited the Kirketon Road Centre in Kings Cross where they had a syringe program for drug users but that he had said that would initially only set up a medically-supervised injecting room as a trial. The trial status was lifted eventually.

“Politicians will only act on these issues when the public is miles ahead of them,” Searle told the room.

When Boney introduced Campbell, she told the room that 64 percent of all Americans want recreational cannabis legalised.

Campbell first came to power in politics with the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE party) in the 2002 Vancouver municipal election. In 2003 a medically-supervised injecting room called Insite opened in Vancouver. He had worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and had seen what poor drug policies had done on the streets. He said that they had a higher rate of deaths in Vancouver than in New York City. He recalled for the room that there had been a group called the Vancouver Area Network of Dug Users in which poet Bud Osborn was involved. He had a talk one day with Osborn at a street corner. Osborn said, “We need a supervised injection centre,” he recalled. But the group had already operated a supervised injection centre for some time illegally. Campbell went there one night. He said that if someone overdosed they would put them out in back alley and phone the ambulance, then close the door and go back inside. Campbell recalled talking about the drug problem with Philip Owen, the mayor of Vancouver, one of whose major goals had been to open a medically-supervised injecting centre. They hosted 700 injections per day and had no deaths.

Now, at the federal level in Canada, the government has appointed Jane Philpot, a doctor, to be the health minister. Now, he went on, Canada is operating 22 injecting rooms. “They’re there as a health initiative,” he said. “I smoke and nobody’s hassling me, nobody’s threatening to put me in jail.” Next year Canada will be legalising marijuana. In the debates, he said, now the biggest issue for the politicians to discuss is how tall the marijuana plant is going to be. “The citizens are always ahead of the politicians,” he said. And he encouraged the people in the room to continue pushing. “You have to keep that pressure up.” A supervised injecting centre “is just a tool in the drawer”, he said. “We need treatment on demand. We need to educate children on what drugs are.” “It’s all about money. We have to put names and faces to the people we’re serving.”

Richard Di Natale got up to speak next. He said criminalisation of drug use was a great injustice that needs to be redressed. People might smoke a joint on the weekend, he said, or they might take a pill before they go out. He recalled that in 2009 Professor David Nutt, the head of the UK government's drug advisory body, compared the risks of horse-riding to taking ecstasy and lost his job. “We have policies in place that actively harm people.”

“The Greens are in support of removing criminal penalties for drug use,” he went on. “Sniffer dogs force young people to take drugs in ways that are dangerous,” he said. “We need prescription heroin trials.” He said that criminalisation diverts resources away from helping people but that the conversation in Australia is changing quickly.

Baume said, “My beliefs on drugs never hurt me within my party that I knew of.” He added, “We favour regulation of the illegal drug market and that’s a better option than what we’ve got at present.”

Above: Canadian Senator Larry Campbell addresses the room at the Wayside Chapel.

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