But such anxiety must be weighed against the benefits, and they are considerable. A recent report on the facility in Richmond North, led by Professor Margaret Hamilton, a respected expert in the alcohol and drug field, is candid in its views. In its first 18 months, the centre had nearly 4000 drug users make 119,223 visits. There was not one death by overdose, despite 271 very serious health incidents.
And while the report concedes it is difficult to know the number of lives saved, its best estimate is between 21 and 27. Such an outcome also had a real effect on other health services that are usually called upon. For ambulance officers, the number of overdoses attended in which naloxone, a drug commonly administered to patients in those situations, has been used dropped by 25 per cent within a kilometre of the centre.
But it’s not just these life and death scenarios that are changing. The report reveals that those turning up to the Richmond North centre have much higher support needs compared with most drug users. They were more likely to be unemployed, homeless or recently released from prison. They were injecting, on average, 14 times a week compared with an average three times a week for most users. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
While the centre’s core objective is to save lives, it has over time expanded its range of services to include infectious disease diagnosis and treatment, wound care, drug dependence treatment and help in finding housing and getting access to mental health services. Giving people access to such services can be life changing.
It hasn’t all been good news, however. Police have reported seeing more drug-related activity in Richmond North, a long-time hot spot for drug abuse, and surveys have continued to reveal high levels of concern among locals over safety.
The state government’s proposal to spend $9 million on neighbourhood renewal in the area is long overdue. An earlier focus on this could have gone a long way towards the facility being better accepted by locals.
This is a lesson that needs to be learnt when the trial of the new facility in the Melbourne CBD begins. Saving lives and providing services are essential. The Richmond North facility has proved that. But there also needs to be a commitment to ensuring the concerns of residents and business owners are heard and acted on to ensure the new facility has the best chance of succeeding.