Injecting rooms just the start of much needed reform - Tony Trimingham, SMH Opinion

"After my son Damien died in 1997 from a heroin overdose, I became convinced we needed to do everything in our power to keep people who use drugs safe and alive."

Tony Trimingham is the chief executive of Family Drug Support

"I gave evidence to the NSW parliamentary committee under the chairmanship of Ann Symonds on injecting facilities. The evidence presented was overwhelmingly in favour of such facilities. Through no fault of Symonds, the committee rejected the evidence on political grounds.

I then travelled to Switzerland in 1998 and visited injecting rooms and heroin prescribing facilities in Berne and Geneva with an open mind. What I saw convinced me we needed these facilities in Australia.

With a small group of colleagues, notably Symonds, Dr Alex Wodak and Reverend Ray Richmond, we plotted an act of civil disobedience at the Wayside Chapel in February 1999. It is now folklore and I am immensely proud of our actions. I remember the night Reverend Fred Nile and Normie Rowe appeared to “close us down”.

We put supervised injecting facilities on the 1999 NSW Drug Summit agenda and we convinced enough politicians to support the idea. A medically supervised injecting centre opened in Kings Cross.

The sky did not fall in. Quite the opposite. Lives have been saved, injuries and infections prevented, and a vulnerable and hard-to-reach group of people have had a path into health care and social services.

Much is made about families not wanting to support these reformist ideas. I have spoken to thousands of family members over the past 18 years. We do not support, condone nor promote drug use. How could we? Drugs have been negative in our lives.

We take the view that a compassionate but pragmatic approach that uses evidence will win over myth, morality and magic. We also know that many people change their lives but it often takes time and, in the meantime, lives can be lost. We support saving lives and reducing damage.

A few years ago, a woman rang me, wanting to meet. She was middle-aged when I met her but, when she was 15, she had been introduced to heroin by an older boyfriend. For the next 14 years she lived a chaotic life. She was convicted of crimes, had a series of broken relationships and overdosed many times. On many occasions, she could have died. She was one of the lucky ones.

What pulled her out was an obsessive thought about going to university. At the age of 29 she decided to act on it and enrolled in a methadone program and a TAFE course to complete high school. After graduating she went on to study medicine and become a GP at the age of 39. On the day she graduated, she took a final dose of methadone.

My son’s story is different. Damien had been using heroin for 18 months. He struggled to give up but went 12 months without using. In a moment of weakness he caught the train 95 kilometres from our home in the Blue Mountains to Central Station then walked 5½ kilometres to Kings Cross. He bought three clean needles from a chemist, scored heroin and went to a disused stairwell to inject. That is where he died.

Damien practised harm minimisation by using clean needles. He would have used the supervised injecting facility if it had been available, but this was 1997, three years before the facility at Kings Cross was established.

Damien needed more time. Supervised injecting facilities are a way to keep people alive and well until they can rebuild their lives.

It is 15 years since the summit and there have been no further reforms. This is beyond belief. We need injecting facilities in every capital city and other regional centres. We need to trial  other substitutes. We need Naloxone (which counters the effects of heroin) to be more widely available. We need, at least, legal medical marijuana.

We support all efforts to bring about sensible change in the drug policy area. We stand beside drug users in their fight for their rights and their need for healthcare and other resources to enable them to live happily and free from stigma and discrimination.

People with drug dependencies are our sons and daughters, they are people we love. We want them to be safe, and to live."

Tony Trimingham is the chief executive of Family Drug Support

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