With no drug overdose deaths on its premises in its 20 years of operation, Sydney’s only medically assisted drug injecting room has done what it foresaw saving the lives of more than 10,600 people who overdosed on the premises.
Latest research from UNSW Sydney and Western Sydney University has uncovered another key health benefit for people using the Injection center under medical supervision (MSIC): a refuge from violence.
In a study published in the International Journal of Crime, Justice and Social Democracycriminologist George ‘Kev’ Dertadian of UNSW Law and Justice interviewed 20 men who regularly used the Kings Cross injecting room to safely manage their opioid or amphetamine habits.
“Previous research has already shown that the Medically Supervised Injection Center has made people’s lives healthier in other ways, whether it’s reducing drug use, accessing treatment services, or connecting to other forms of social services,” Dr. Dertadian said.
“But what emerges from our latest research is that this service deals with people whose lives are very marginalized and precarious, and that it acts as a kind of refuge from the forms of harassment and violence that they undergo daily outside the center. base.”
Dr. Dertadian said respondents explicitly described MSIC as a place where their health and drug use became safer, which, by extension, made their lives more manageable. In the case of 18-year-old Yasim, visiting the MSIC was a better option than injecting drugs on the street because it allowed him to let his guard down because “you don’t have to look over your shoulder every two minutes”.
Of the men aged 18 to 35 who participated in the research, all had experienced violence and abuse related to their drug use from other family members, other people who use and sell drugs, the police and the public.
Eight of the 20 men interviewed had spent time in jail, and researchers say stressful stories of traumatic abuse were a common theme.
All of the men interviewed said they had slept rough on several occasions, with some claiming it was permanent accommodation. With around a quarter of them growing up or living in western Sydney, the longer distances to get to the MSIC have contributed to the men’s decision to sleep outdoors near the centre. Underfunded city center housing services were routinely unable to house the men.
Chris, 35, told researchers: ‘When I got out of prison I may have crossed Matthew Talbot [local homeless shelter], like anywhere that takes you I will go. If they don’t take you, I sleep on the street.
One of the additional risks of sleeping outdoors is exposure to the elements as well as unprovoked violence. But even couch surfing had its own dangers, as Aaron, 35, recalls.
“As if I lived in this house. It was absolute misery. I had lost 15 kilos. I didn’t feel at all safe to eat in there. I thought I was going to get sick.
Violence towards people who inject drugs can also come from men’s family and friends and be a major reason why returning home was not an option for some. Yasim has spoken of the backlash from those close to him when they found out he was injecting.
“I had two of my cousins [almost] whip me to death because they saw these [track] marks and all that… They grabbed me then hit me, kept yelling at me, yelling at me, slapping me. Then it got to a stage where they just rockin’ their shirts [at me]and it was a real great royal rumble.
The drug market
The act of buying drugs was also fraught with danger, and with poor communities under constant threat of arrest, they were unable to report any personal victimization due to fear of exposure. to unsympathetic police, creating the conditions in which violence thrives in the drug market. .
Many men said that even when buying drugs from people they considered friends, there was a risk of a violent altercation. Zane (35) said he asked a ‘so-called pal’ to help out a friend from Orange who had just arrived in Sydney, only to hear his pal had used him as a chance to rob his friend . And Mark (33) described an associate living in a shared house which he visits at least once a week.
“Every time I go there, there are incidents. People were stabbed, punched, kicked. It’s always a problem there.
Craig (35) thought it was inevitable that violence “falls your way” in the drugs scene, while Aaron said he saw “dealers here like being beaten up, and people trying to take them away their drugs.
Another factor that contributed to the choice to sleep rough was a desire to limit contact with police when traveling to and from the MSIC. The frequency and intensity of police harassment was widely discussed by participants.
Paul (32) described being targeted by police as he went about his business.
“They started frisking us and then they started talking aggressively and stuff, man. Like, ‘What’s your name?’, ‘Are you sure you’re not on drugs, man?’, ‘What you doing with that guy?’, you know? ‘Where did you get that, mate?’, ‘That’s better your name, mate’, ‘I know you got drugs’.”
Bill (34) spoke of pure and simple and unprovoked aggression.
“Well, once I was in town, and the police officer said, ‘you’re resisting arrest,’ he threw me headfirst into the back of the paddy wagon, looked this way, looked this way and made sure no one was there, no one was there, [so he] grabbed me, punched me in the face and said, “This is an assault on a policeman. So explain that. He punched me in the face and then accused me of assaulting a police officer.
Mark (33) received particularly rough treatment when he was unloaded from a police wagon.
“Then I was handcuffed and dragged out the back of the paddy wagon by one foot. But my handcuffs were tied behind my back. So imagine doing that, getting out of the paddy wagon and just like literally smashing my tailbone on the concrete at a meter and a half… like I had bruises on my arms, everything.
Dr Dertadian said that while many interviewees offered surprisingly sympathetic accounts of the officers and their difficult duties, allegations of police brutality appeared to be common.
“The injection center does, however, have the support of senior government and police officials, which means it is agreed that officers do not enter the center itself,” he said.
“So in this way, the center acts as a much-needed place of safety, away from the police harassment and violence they experience outside of its protective walls.”
Researchers were somewhat taken aback by the widely reported occurrence of public abuse, or as 23-year-old Ross describes it, “hits on the street.” This included hostility in and around local businesses from vendors and security personnel.
“People target you because you’re homeless or because you look a certain way, or because you use drugs, or because they think you’re a junkie. It’s actually happened to me quite a bit,” Bill told researchers.
James (32) described being refused use of a company toilet.
“I had spilled ice cream on my hands while eating. I just wanted to go use their bathroom. Anyway, she just said to me: ‘no, no, get out’. Then she said, ‘no junkies here’. I said I just wanted to wash my hands.
Dr Dertadian said forms of harassment by the public were so common that they were considered unavoidable.
“Although we know that people who inject drugs are very marginalized in society, which means they could be vulnerable to abuse, I was surprised at how common it was for participants to be abused by complete strangers. Imagine trying to get some rest at night only to have a random guy in an expensive suit tell you you’re a scum. It’s an ugly view of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society.
More injection rooms
Dr Dertadian and his colleagues have previously called for an increase in the number of safe injection rooms in Sydney which could help drug users living in the suburbs.
Although this research focused on the experiences of men, the findings are likely to be applicable and perhaps even more intense for women, transgender people, and gender-diverse customers. Further research is essential to understand how differing gender experiences among clients impact safety in the public space, the drug market and in contact with the police, according to the researchers.