The inconspicuous shop window has frosted glass. Number 66 is at the top of the window. That’s it. People enter discretely. No fuss. No chaos. No police presence. Schoolgirls chatter as they walk past with their bags. Patrons enjoy a wine at a street café next door. It’s just a typical warm, sunny Friday afternoon in funky Kings Cross.
It’s almost hard to believe that this unremarkable place is Australia’s only Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC), opened as a trial in 2001.
Open the door of Number 66. Enter a clean, neat Reception area with plants and a young man sitting at a computer screen behind the counter. All very calm and professional. I could have been in an accountant’s office. I introduce myself and take a seat.
A younger man comes in soon after me. Approaching the man behind the counter, he advises his password: “What are you injecting today? Heroin. When did you last inject? Three days ago. Fine – take a seat. You should have a booth in two minutes.”
MSIC’s Operations Manager then enters Reception to greet me. “Welcome to MSIC! Thanks for making the effort to visit us. Come upstairs to the board room.”
What hits me most is how calm and peaceful the atmosphere is in this “controversial” MSIC, the only one in Australia (but one of more than 90 in international cities). I asked if it was always like this? “Yes. We rarely experience any problems.”
Entering the board room, I was offered a tea, coffee, water. I then watched a 14-minute film. It charts the history of the Cross from the 1990s - when residents and traders were overwhelmed with public injecting: syringes galore, overdoses and corpses - to the present time. The MSIC has just celebrated its 15th year of operation and it’s no longer a “trial” facility. The internationally renowned success of the operation has been rewarded with permanency by the NSW Parliament and is reflected upon in the film by a local resident: we are now very disappointed if we find two syringes a month in the area.
An open-slather, one-hour Q&A session follows with the Service Operations Manager. Questions, concerns and problems are batted away with healthy doses of evidence-based knowledge and facts.
“The unfortunate reality is that a politician has to experience a family tragedy to appreciate the importance of an MSIC - and then do something about it, usually in the face of prejudiced opposition. Bob Carr did just that when he became NSW Premier in 1998. He held a review into drug use in the state and the establishment of the MSIC was the result of that review. Our clients want to be addiction-free but they need our help to succeed.”
In the meantime, downstairs the clients were being methodically ushered from Reception into a private-injecting booth. They bring their own drugs but are provided with clean syringes and safe disposal bins. The injecting is overseen by three registered nurses, discretely positioned behind a counter. They administer oxygen and Narcan if necessary in the event of an overdose. All this is done in a calm, professional manner. The MSIC – like other similar centres around the world – has never had a client die from an overdose.
Clients then move to an ante-room where they can make tea or coffee, charge their mobile phones, do a crossword, read a magazine and receive counselling and rehabilitation referrals from three health education officers. When they are ready, they exit the Centre via the back door, unseen by the public.
The Service Operations Manager showed me the injecting booths through a frosted window that provides clients with privacy. The injecting room reminds me of a doctor’s consulting room. Clean, calm and once again, unremarkable.
“The MSIC is funded by the confiscated proceeds of crime, not by the taxpayer, at a cost of approximately $3.6million per year (2016/7 figures). This is a lot less than what it currently costs for ambulance, police and emergency hospital services. MSIC has been studied extensively over the years by countless organisations, including KPMG. Every report has been 100% positive about the services and results of the centre on clients and the local residential and commercial community.”
This visit to the Kings Cross MSIC was a life-changing experience for me. As a resident of the City of Yarra, it hit home how life-changing an MSIC would be for the drug users, residents and traders in the Victoria Street area right now!
How many more syringes and overdoses – or a politician’s own tragedy – will it take to make this happen.