Last Sunday afternoon a weak winter sun presented the promise of an outing. I put on my coat and stepped out for a trip to the City.
I noticed a dark figure huddled on the front verandah of one of the low terrace houses just before the church.
Was this a regular?
The man was in the process of injecting himself in the groin. His head was down and his black cap concealed his face. He had no awareness of the world beyond the syringe which held his focus completely. It was around 2:00ish. I often see this happening.
I crossed the street near the road barrier just up from the pokie den on the corner and noticed two highway patrol police cars parked in the middle of the road.
I mentioned to one of the cops that there was a guy shooting up who might need attention. ‘Sorry luv, we’re Highway Patrol. Was he in a car? Try triple 0’
I went up the lane behind the pub. It’s essentially a drain these days, filled with soupy, greening water, slippery with the fat discharged from the burger joint. It’s usually doubly blocked by a regular parade of Uber vehicles parked at the back entrance running a steady home delivery service.
I round the corner, passing the car park and overhear a conversation.
“C’mon we’ll be late to mum’s,” someone wheedles.
“ You right for a fit mate?”
Victoria Street is gridlocked. It’s an easy sprint across Victoria St to the tram stop.
I’m the odd one out. A dozen junkies and a handful of dealers are milling, moving, trading, pacing all around me. This is stop 20 on the Lennox St corner, locally known as Crack Alley.
I look up and down the street and nearly everyone I see is somehow engaged in drug dealing - using, abusing, supplying, facilitating.
A few tourists pick their way along the tawdry street looking hopefully into the restaurants and shops, but not stopping. Just hurrying along, shielding their children as they realise what they are in the midst of and carefully skirting the yellow stain of fresh vomit on the pavement outside the shop.
I watch a dealer working out of his satchel, money and drugs changing hands efficiently, clients milling and moving briskly on once they’ve scored.
A few shops down an ambulance has collected someone and now glides quietly past towards St V’s.
‘…and ran right over his fucking leg…” I overhear.
A woman herds her two children into the stroller they've outgrown, screeching at them that the tram is coming. Why is she shouting?
I’m not feeling so chirpy about my outing and very nearly decide to go back home, but I stare out at the piteous gatherings of lost humanity from the window seat and continue on, overtaken by a wave of depression and faint nausea. How hopeless! How ugly. Each confrontation evokes anger and frustration and a fraying of tolerance.
Junkies routinely come into my front garden to try the tap. Everyone in the street has removed their tap fitting and keeps them hidden inside. Inconvenient but necessary.
I found a box of food stashed under shrubs in my front garden the other day. I’ve started to lock one of the access gates because I’m tired of finding it left open. Inconvenient again, because I need to get through that gate when I bring my bike in and out.
I’m doing a test to see if I can get down to the Hive and back with the world being normal. I can say that without exception I will encounter someone shooting up, loitering in a car dealing, someone lurching and swaying in a drug swoon threatening to pass out right in front of me.
I will see used needles and drug paraphernalia littered along the gutters and on the house porches. Someone pinned will push past, racing frantically along the pavement. Dealers will be working along Victoria Street and gathering junkies will be scanning and pacing.
Go down Victoria Street. Sit at stop 20 for a while.
Check out the sad shops nearby. I feel sorry for the bakery and the restaurants whose doorways are crowded by the drug fucked and their creepy dealers.
Head into the Hive and watch the shoplifting in Woolworths and Aldi. See how fruit is expertly snatched from shop displays along Victoria St.
I attended a council facilitated meeting of helping services for drug users. It was a sort of ‘trade show’ at the Lennox St Health centre and one speaker declared that the issue had been going on for as long as 10 years.
He is wrong. I’ve been living with the drug problem along Victoria St since the 90’s.
More than 20 years ago my son had needle stick injury. He was at the local kindergarten. Some jerk had tossed a used needle into the playground tan bark where the 3 year olds found it.
I keep a lookout for needles. I carefully collect and dispose of the ones in my garden, nature strip and laneway. It’s my habit.
Whatever is being done by police, health services and council is not working.
At a community meeting a few years ago a police representative explained the ‘perfect storm’ and why this area had become the state epicentre of drug trade. It’s largely due to the brilliant public transport. Tram, rail and bus services funnel the drug trade of the state right here, close to town.
The local community is puzzled as to why they can observe blatant trade but the dealers remain so elusive to police. ‘It’s futile’ said the policeman. ‘We could come out every day and arrest and lock people up and their places would simply be filled by others.’
Clearly criminalising a problem that is a health issue, exacerbated by unemployment and homelessness, does not work. Anywhere.
The only beneficiaries are drug barons and the growing violent, cruel drug economy.
One of the facilitators at the drug user services meeting declared forcefully at the outset that ‘this meeting is not about solutions’.
Why not? After 20 years of tackling symptoms rather than cause it’s time for a bold attempt to find solutions.
Let’s consider treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than a crime.
Give addicts the drugs they need. Regulate the provision of safe drugs and paraphernalia and offer a dignified pathway to abstinence.
Break the cruel, extortionist, profit driven drug economy that drives users into streets and into crime to support a habit.
Recognise the mental health issues linked to drug addiction and redirect the resources channelled through crime prevention into mental health services.
Make it possible for users to afford rent, to hold down a job, and restore dignity.
Find out how Sydney’s Kings Cross Medically Supervised Injecting Centre turned the same problem around:
The centre’s webpage can be found here:
Ask for advice on how to develop similar centres here.
(Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director, Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross, Sydney says the centre is open for people to see what is being done and why it is being done.)
Look to countries which have decriminalised drug use - Switzerland, Portugal, Canada, and learn from their experiences to develop a strategy suiting Australian circumstances:
Questions to consider:
How realistic is it to stop drug use? What level of use is acceptable? Under what conditions?
Why are so many people in pain? What are the links to unemployment and homelessness?
What pathways back into the community can be effective?