‘Will cost lives’: addiction experts condemn decision to scrap proposed safe injecting room in Melbourne’s CBD

<span>Victorian premier Jacinta Allan has announced new funding for drug services after scrapping a proposal to open a second injecting room in Melbourne’s CBD.</span><span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Victorian premier Jacinta Allan has announced new funding for drug services after scrapping a proposal to open a second injecting room in Melbourne’s CBD.Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

A proposed safe injecting room in Melbourne’s CBD has been rejected by the Victorian government, with addiction experts warning the decision will “cost lives”.

The government on Tuesday announced that a trial facility, recommended by a former police commissioner and which would complement the existing service in North Richmond – will not proceed, after concluding there was no site that could balance the needs of drug users with the broader community.

The Greens described the move as “gutless” and a “spineless captain’s call”, while experts have warned it will put drug users in the CBD at risk, despite a government commitment to fund more support services.

John Ryan, who chaired a panel overseeing the North Richmond facility, which first recommended a second injecting room in the CBD in 2020, described the decision as disappointing.

“The evidence tells us that we can cut the number of overdoses and deaths when people have access to a medically supervised injecting site,’’ said Ryan, now the chief executive at the Penington Institute.

“Overdose is a leading cause of death in Australia – it’s higher than the road toll – but there are ways to prevent overdoses and prevent deaths … As a society we cannot keep putting band aids on a gaping wound.”

Prof Suzanne Nielsen, an opioid expert and deputy director of Monash university’s Addiction Research Centre, said the need for a facility had only become greater since the government committed to a second site four years ago.

She said Melbourne had the “highest rates of heroin harm in the country and these are centred in the CBD”.

“It is a false dichotomy to say we are choosing between a supervised injecting room and treatment – we urgently need more of both,” Nielsen said.

“Not supporting this service and having people injecting drugs unsafely in public places in the CBD, where they could have been supported in a health service, is not a win for traders or the community.”

Related: Melbourne has had Australia’s worst heroin addiction for years. Why can’t the city kick its habit?

The announcement came as the government released a long-awaited report by the former Victorian police commissioner Ken Lay, commissioned in 2020 and received a year ago, into a potential safe injecting room for the city.

Lay recommended a trial of a “small and discrete service” of four to six booths in the CBD, which is significantly smaller than the 20-booth facility at North Richmond, due to the “safety and amenity concerns” of the local community.

But the premier, Jacinta Allan, said the government no longer supported the establishment of a second site in the CBD and ruled out the possibility of a facility in another location.

“This now puts a line under a second safe injecting room in Victoria,” she said.

Keep Our City Alive, group of Melbourne residents, business owners and health professionals who lobbied for a CBD injecting room, said it was “saddened and disappointed” the government had ignored advice “for short term political gain”.

“Today’s announcement means that lives will continue to be lost unnecessarily to overdose in our city,” the group said.

Patrick Lawrence, the chief executive of addiction and mental health service First Step, said there was “absolutely no question” the decision “will cost lives”.

“We’ve got thousands of injecting rooms in Melbourne. Injecting laneways, injecting streets, and injecting parks. All we are asking for … is one with four walls, and a roof, and doctors and nurses,” Lawrence said.

Allan said the location had “been a key sticking point”.

“We have been unable to find a location that strikes the right balance … between supporting people who use drugs with the needs of the broader community,” she said.

Lay’s report rejected an initial proposal to set up a safe injecting room site at 53 Victoria Street, near Queen Victoria Market, as it was “not located in a concentrated drug market”.

Instead, he identified four areas of injecting drug harms in the CBD with the highest ambulance attendances for heroin overdoses, with the “most significant” located near the intersection of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Street.

From an initial list of 50 sites, he narrowed down a shortlist of the three sites for the government: 104 A’Beckett Street, 340 Flinders Street and 244 Flinders Street.

He did not nominate a preferred site but said 244 Flinders Street – the former Yooralla building – “ranked highest” by experts. It was bought by the government.

In 2022, Lay found drug-related harms had “returned to pre-Covid levels and in some cases are now even higher”, with the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth streets accounting for 20% of heroin-related ambulance attendances.

Related: Experts warn of influx of synthetic opioids amid calls for second Melbourne injecting room

According to coroner’s court data, 549 Victorians died from drug overdoses in 2022, with 230 involving heroin. The City of Melbourne was the local government area with the most fatal heroin overdoses, with 24 recorded in 2022.

Instead of opening a new facility, Allan and the mental health minister, Ingrid Stitt, announced a new $95.11m plan to tackle drug overdoses.

The plan will include $36.4m to establish a CBD hub to open at 244 Flinders Street, which will offer a two-year $7.2m trial of hydromorphone treatment for 60 heroin users.

An additional $9.4m will be spent to establish wraparound health and social supports, which will be located at that site as well as the Salvation Army’s CBD headquarters.

Community health provider, cohealth, will also be given $21.3m for more outreach teams in the CBD. About $8.4m will be spent on pharmacotherapy treatments in “up to 30 locations”, while a $4.4m trial of 20 Naloxone dispensing machines will be rolled out.

Cohealth’s Paul MacCartney, doctor and addiction medicine specialist, and the commanding officer of the Salvation Army, Maj Brendan Nottle, said they had “mixed emotions” about the government’s plan.

“There’s evidence that injecting rooms save lives and we will continue to advocate … [that they] be part of the suite of treatments available in Victoria,” MacCartney said.

• In Australia, the Opioid Treatment Line is at 1800 642 428 or call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015. In the UK, Action on Addiction is available on 0300 330 0659. In the US, call or text SAMHSA’s National Helpline on 988