Pubdate: Wed, 30 Aug 2000
Source: Bangkok Post (Thailand)
Copyright: The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2000
Author: Alex Wodak


Although based on much misinformation, the editorial "Legalising drugs will 
cure nothing" (Aug 22), is a welcome commentary on recent responses to 
illicit drugs in Australia.

The decision by the New South Wales state government to permit a rigorous 
scientific trial of a medically supervised injecting room was not made 
lightly. It developed from a recommendation of the 1997 NSW royal 
commission into police corruption. A clear majority of parliamentarians and 
invited experts supported such a trial after listening carefully to 
arguments for and against the proposal at a special major drug summit in 
Sydney held in 1999.

This decision reflects a preparedness to respond to the world as it really 
is rather than the world as we would like it to be. It has nothing to do 
with the legalisation of drugs. Similar trials are being considered 
seriously in Canberra and Melbourne.

Illicit drugs will not be provided in the Sydney centre and staff will not 
assist the administration of illicit drugs. Staff however will assist drug 
users who collapse, and try and save their lives.

Drug overdose deaths in Australia increased from only six in 1964 to 737 in 
1998. Almost half of these deaths occur in the state of New South Wales 
(which has one-third of the national population). Many of these deaths have 
occurred in the vicinity of the proposed trial. I was part of a group that 
briefly ran an illegal injecting room in a church in 1999 to help draw 
attention to the need for this trial.

For over a decade, criminals operated a dozen of more illegal shooting 
galleries in the area where the official trial is now to be held. The aims 
of the injecting room are to reduce overdose deaths, the spread of 
infections linked to drug injecting and injecting in public places. It is 
hoped that the injecting room will also assist injecting drug users to 
enter treatment. These are humane and worthy objectives. They deserve 
widespread support. More than three-quarters of residents in the 
neighbourhood support injecting rooms.

There are over 40 medically supervised injecting rooms in Europe. There has 
not been a single death in any of these centres which first began operating 
in 1986. In many European cities where such injecting rooms operate, drug 
overdose deaths have declined and the quality of life for neighbourhood 
residents has improved. Drug overdose deaths declined in Switzerland (where 
the first injecting room was established) from 419 in 1992 to 209 in 1998. 
Local communities and police support injecting rooms.

According to official figures, the overwhelming majority (84%) of 
government expenditure in Australia in response to illicit drugs is 
allocated to law enforcement efforts to reduce the supply of illicit drugs. 
Yet deaths, disease, crime and corruption have flourished. Despite 
increasing the severity of penalties and expanding drug squads, illicit 
drugs in Australia are becoming cheaper, purer and more available.

Many thoughtful Australians now reject the notion that we can arrest and 
imprison our way out of the current situation, although the current 
Australian prime minister is still a prohibition true believer. Faced with 
the resounding failure of current drug policy, we have to try new 
approaches. Injecting rooms in Europe appear to have succeeded. Little 
wonder that they are being carefully evaluated in Australia. Whether 
Thailand one day carries out a similar trial should be decided only by the 
people of Thailand.

Dr Alex Wodak, Director, Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent's Hospital, 
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