North Richmond: Through the eye of a needle

Used needles and drug related rubbish are haunting the residents of North Richmond. Picture: supplied

By ADAM ANDREWS 

On May 30 last year, a 34-year-old mother of two was found dead from a heroin overdose under the bright lights of a Hoddle St Hungry Jacks.

The woman was found unconscious in a toilet cubicle, with a syringe sticking out of her upper leg, and fresh track marks in her groin. First on scene was an employee of the popular Richmond fast-food chain.

The death of Mrs A (so named in the Coroner’s Court) sparked an inquiry from State Coroner Jacqui Hawkins, who called on the Labor Premier Daniel Andrews to establish a supervised injecting room, which was rejected.

Sex Party MP Fiona Patten proposed a Bill for an 18-month trial of a supervised drug-injecting facility in North Richmond. Presented to State Parliament in February, the issue is now being investigated by an Upper House committee,  which is to report back by mid-September. 

Mr Andrews has said his party would not support a drug-injecting room. “I have no intention to change our policy on this, but I do note there is a parliamentary inquiry on this under way and I look forward to that report,” he said this month. 

Fiona Patten

Ms Patten asked: “How many more people have to die in order to convince Daniel Andrews?”

The proposed trial facility boasted a multitude of benefits, she said. Not only for the drug users themselves, but for the community of North Richmond.

In 2016, 172 overdose fatalities took place in Victoria, 34 within a single block of North Richmond. This was the highest since the heroin boom of the 1990s.

This block bordered by Lennox, Victoria, Church and Elizabeth streets appears to be the epicentre for the state’s heroin drug trade and consumption. The spike in public drug use has affected community safety, with rises in petty theft, burglaries, property damage and  aggression from drug users.

Perhaps the biggest danger to public safety is the number of discarded needles left lying around in public areas.

Ms Patten said that in the crisis area of North Richmond, there were 60,000 syringes given out each year, many of which were used and then left in car parks, playgrounds and gutters. This “needle nightmare” she describes is just one of the issues that would be reduced with the establishment of a supervised injecting room available for drug users.

“The facility will improve the amenity of the area and greatly reduce the amount of drug fuelled encounters that are terrifying residents,” she said.

Support had come from a broad collection of organisations, including the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Ambulance Victoria and the Salvation Army, Ms Patten said.

“You won’t find any opposition for the facility outside of Parliament.”

Australia’s only facility, the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in Sydney’s Kings Cross, flaunts its success.

The MSIC injecting room. Source: MSIC

A study of the MSIC, detailed in the Coroner’s inquiry, showed that since its opening in 2001, the facility has:

  • Successfully managed 6500 overdoses, without a single death.
  • Reduced the number of overdoses in public areas surrounding the facility.
  • Reduce the number of ambulance callouts by 80 per cent.
  • Connected more than 9500 people with necessary health and social welfare services.
  • Reduced the number of needles and syringes left in public.
  • Gained huge amounts of support from local traders and residents.

In 2010, after a 10-year trial of the facility, the Drug Summit Legislative Response Act 1999 (NSW) was replaced by the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Amendment (Medically Supervised Injecting Centre) Act 2010 (NSW), giving the facility secure status.

Since 2010, there have been 1136 heroin-related deaths in the state. Most notable was the 20 per cent increase in heroin-related fatalities from 2014 to 15.

The Premier’s critics say the current political stance on drug-related issues is outdated and counteractive. “Mr Andrews is worried to be labelled soft on crime,” Ms Patten said.

The spike in heroin fatalities in recent years is a concern for the community, those who use drugs, and also their families. “There is a moral judgement that the lives of drug users are less important, but what about the lives of their families and friends?” she said.

“We can spend $190,000 a year per person and throw them in prison, or spend $50,000 and provide necessary life-saving rehabilitation.

“The government has no excuse, they are playing politics with people’s lives.”

Yarra City Council  mayor Amanda Stone, a  major supporter of the Bill, said a supervised injecting facility had been part of her policies for 10 years. The Coroner’s inquiry into Drug Law Reform (2017) signified that the Yarra City Council had the highest figure of heroin-related deaths across the whole of Victoria. “We have reached crisis point,” Ms Stone said.

“Residents are scared to come home from work at night because they think there will be a dead body in the driveways,” she said.

In February, Ms Stone called for a community response on the issue. “Reimagining Victoria St” was designed to gauge local experiences of living, working and visiting Victoria St and the surrounding areas.

The main concern expressed was the danger discarded needles posed to the public, especially children. “The police have admitted that they cannot manage the antisocial behaviour and it is leaving the residents feeling completely powerless,” Ms Stone said.

Discarded syringes pose a danger.

A North Richmond resident known by the name “Ugly” said he picked up at least 20 “fits” (syringes) every day from footpaths and other high foot traffic zones.

Ugly, who has lived in the area since 2013, said the situation had become worse, and was now posing severe threats on the wider community. The key concerns were the immediate areas of Boroondara kindergarten on Cooke Court, and West Richmond Primary School on Lennox St.

He said some of the car parks and pocket parks surrounding these two child learning facilities were used as “unofficial injecting rooms”, as Victoria St was becoming less tolerant of such behaviour.

Lobbying to the State Government for an intense police presence around these schools, Ugly said he hoped to catalyse the establishment of a no-go zone for drug users.

“It takes a millisecond for a child to pick up what has caught their eye, and that may unfortunately lead to a lifetime of illness,”  Ugly said.

“Most of the users have zero sense of social responsibility, why are they getting away with ruining more lives than their own?

“Leaving fits on the ground, deliberately or not, is an extremely violent act which needs to be dealt with equivalent force of the law.”

He said he had suffered a needle stick injury while cleaning up the footpaths and gutters around his flat. The 78-year old now carries surface antigens for Hepatitis A and C.

Another concern for the children of North Richmond is the life lessons they absorb.

The block bounded by Lennox, Victoria, Church and Elizabeth streets appears to be the epicentre for the state’s heroin drug trade and consumption.

“Children see drug paraphernalia and users on the street when they’re in their pushers, when they’re going to kindergarten and when they’re going to and from primary school. Soon enough they will take this is as accepted behaviour,” Ugly said.

“North Richmond needs one legal injecting room rather than 500 unofficial and unsupervised injecting rooms.”

Ugly and other residents want the Andrews Government to back drug law reform. 

“Drug users think the police are a joke, current laws are failing miserably on a local level,” Ugly said. 

The lack of government response was encouraging the formation of vigilante groups, he said. “Those who are living this drug-traumatised lifestyle need their voices heard.”

The trauma is also felt by  emergency staff. “I have witnessed up to 14 emergency personnel attend the overdose call out of one person, what an absolutely waste of resources,” Ugly said.

North Richmond Community Health (NRCH) spokesperson Jessie Richardson said each overdose response was resource intensive, and could have extremely traumatic effects on staff. NRCH is on Lennox St, opposite the community housing flats and West Richmond Primary School.

The staff of NRCH were always trying to improve local conditions, but they had limited resources and funding,  Ms Richardson said.