Magazine article The Christian Century

Australian Church Plans Drug Experiment

Magazine article The Christian Century

Australian Church Plans Drug Experiment

Article excerpt

A court decision has opened the way for one of Australia's leading churches, the Uniting Church, to set up the world's largest legal heroin injecting room in Sydney's red light district. The room is to be operated by the church under license from the state of New South Wales in a 19-month trial aimed at preventing an average of 358 fatal overdoses occurring each year there.

Under the plan, addicts will not be provided with the drug, but will be allowed to inject under medical supervision. Up to 200 injections of drugs are expected to take place daily in the room, which will be open eight hours daily and staffed by nurses and counselors. The room, a onetime pinball parlor in central Sydney's Kings Cross section, contains eight stainless steel cubicles with two seats each, allowing 16 people to inject at one time. Addicts will be provided a clean syringe, a spoon, water and a swab. Legislation has been changed to allow addicts to carry small quantities of drugs--one gram of heroin, speed or cocaine or a quarter of a gram of ecstasy--provided they are on their way to the room to inject.

The Supreme Court of New South Wales in early April dismissed an attempt by the Kings Cross Chamber of Commerce to prevent the room from opening--a decision termed a "comprehensive victory" by Harry Herbert, executive director of the Uniting Church's Board for Social Responsibility. "It's a relief to me that we can now get on with having this trial," he said, adding that the room would open as soon as staff could be hired and trained, probably before the end of May.

The Uniting Church got involved with the experiment because it was seen as a"basic act of compassion to the desperate," Herbert said. "Surely we have had enough discussion about the issue. It's only a trial. We won't know if it's good or bad until we do it. It is about saving lives, and being practical and realistic in the ways we reach people who are almost out of reach," he said.

In his Supreme Court ruling, Justice Brian Scully described the church's proposal as "precise and well thought through." He said it was not the role of the court to decide questions of public policy, public morality and social philosophy.

Church participation in legal injecting rooms has caused controversy and internal strife ever since the idea was first floated in 1999, when the Wayside Chapel, also a part of the Uniting Church and famous for its ministry to Sydney's down-and-out, opened an illegal "tolerance room" in which addicts could inject. …

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