Melbourne Advocates Fight Backlash to New Safe Consumption Site Plan

    Controversy is escalating in Melbourne, Australia, over the location of what would be the city’s second safe consumption site (SCS). Although the proposed location in central downtown was chosen to address the increasing number of overdose deaths in that area, opponents are arguing that it’s too close to bustling shops and tourist attractions for comfort. Business-owners have claimed it would “kill the city”—without mentioning the need to keep the city’s human residents alive. 

    In June, the battle reached a tipping point when conservative City Councilor Roshena Campbell introduced a measure to ban any SCS from ever opening in the downtown area. It was defeated 7-4.

    The state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, opened its first SCS in the city’s North Richmond area in June 2018, as part of what was originally a two-year pilot program. The trial had finally been approved by the state following political inquiries and public submission periods, multiple coroner inquests and findings from Australia’s first SCS in neighboring Sydney.

    The North Richmond SCS prevented at least 21 fatal overdoses in its first 18 months of operation. Public injection prevalence also decreased in that time period, as did costly ambulance dispatches. The site had more than 119,000 visits by nearly 4,000 registered participants—even busier than the Sydney SCS. It was such a resounding success that in June 2020, the trial was extended and plans announced for the proposed SCS in Melbourne’s central business district.

    “The number of clients registering and accessing the [North Richmond] facility demonstrates the need for an additional site,” Dr. Erin Lalor, the CEO of Australia’s Alcohol and Drug Foundation, told Filter. 

    Melbourne’s central business district is a crucial access point for harm reduction services. Between 2015 and 2019, the state of Victoria saw around three fatal opioid-involved overdose per week, a large percentage of those deaths occurring in downtown Melbourne. Lessons learned from the Sydney SCS highlight the need for more of these sites, especially in high-population areas, since most participants cannot realistically travel significant distances to access them.

    “The people most likely to be injecting drugs in public places are the ones who are struggling the most.”

    The forceful opposition to the downtown Melbourne SCS is the inevitable result of media pushing out “sustained, hysterical reporting amplifying [only] the voices of the people most opposed,” Will Tregoning, the CEO of national advocacy group Unharm, told Filter. Media reports have showcased aggressive opposition and concerns from business owners, photos of syringe litter, headlines about “meth and heroin zombies,” and inaccurate claims about SCS outcomes.

    “It’s a classic case of ‘War on Drugs’ exploitation by a media organization playing for attention and the ad sales that it brings,” Tregoning said. “The people most likely to be injecting drugs in public places are the ones who are struggling the most. It’s inevitable then that there will be people with concerns about an injecting center in the [business district], especially if they don’t understand how it works.”

    Melbourne’s SCS backlash has been further exacerbated by the government’s own misleading and unbalanced messaging on drug use—despite calls even from police to move away from penalizing drug users and toward harm reduction policies.

    “It’s hard to change policies if governments have a real fear campaign around use of drugs,” Gino Vumbaca, the president of Harm Reduction Australia, told Filter. “If you then want to change directions, it’s hard to bring people with you. You will always have opposition, but it’s about how you address that.”  

    It’s no surprise, amid such messaging, that public sentiment around the proposed new SCS has been mixed, with up to 60 percent of respondents to media polls being unsupportive. Support for SCS in general is tenuous: Public approval for the North Richmond location dwindled from 61 percent to 44 percent since it opened, in spite of its quantifiable success.

    In the meantime, the Melbourne government’s evaluation process for the second SCS continues as the region grapples with ongoing COVID shutdowns and a struggling national vaccine rollout.

    “Peer-reviewed academic research is important, but it isn’t ever going to break down the stigma around drug use,” Tregoning said. To do that, we must “humanize addiction, and also show that drug use can be positive and safe.”

     


     

    Photograph of Flinders Street Station, a train station near the location of the proposed SCS, via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0 

    • Umme is Filter‘s editorial fellow. She is a journalist and editor who has written about human rights, politics, education and climate, with an interest in the impact of social and public policies on disenfranchised communities. She also works as an organizer and advocate, working to build a future with education, housing and health care for all. Umme lives in New Mexico.

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