Why We Need To Care
Words by Wilson Huang
Initially, this article was going to be about an art exhibition. While that’s still a focus, I felt I needed to address something else first: the events at Defqon.1 and subsequently the comments of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. If you were wondering what connection there is between an art exhibition and the use of drugs: this is the eighth year of Art from the Heart of the Cross, which is an annual exhibition showing art from clients of the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC). Since 2001, the MSIC has championed harm reduction – and with over 1 million visits has not seen a single death due to overdoses. Defqon.1 on the other hand, which had a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, has just seen two people die of a suspected overdose – notwithstanding the event has already seen people die in the past. The same zero-tolerance policy has been applied by the government for decades. As such, it was an act of civil disobedience by a group of activists from the Wayside Chapel when they created ‘the Tolerance Room’ in 1999, often considered to be an important milestone in the creation of the MSIC.
While establishing safe injecting centres and pill testing initiatives are both harm reduction strategies, they serve a different purpose. Pill testing facilities mostly address recreational drug users. And they have been shown to work. For example, recently at Groovin the Moo in the ACT, two highly toxic chemicals were found. As a consequence, some users considered to bin their drugs. On top of that, the government and health authorities are informed about substances that are circulating. However, speaking in response to the events at Defqon.1, Berejiklian said that pill testing was “not a solution” and that anyone advocates for it is “giving the green light to drugs”. Instead, her solution seems to be banning Defqon.1 – seemingly oblivious to the fact that music festivals are not the only places people do drugs and that there are of course plenty other festivals.
It’s this kind of attitude that made it so hard to establish an injecting centre. Fortunately, in the case of the MSIC, compassion, acceptance and reasoning made it possible. Which brings us to the art exhibition.
Looking through the catalogue of artworks and reading some of the stories, I was amazed at the quality of many of the pieces. At the same time, I also became aware of some of the issues affecting drug users – including homelessness, mental disorders and childhood trauma. From Hooked, a harrowing account of drug addiction, to artworks titled Rainbow Serpent, Clinical Waste Diptych and Part-time Schizophrenia (We Don’t Need No Medication), what I saw were the works of some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society including Indigenous Australians. But it also made me understand the importance of the MSIC for these people. To them, it’s not only a place that makes is safer for them to inject drugs, but a place which shows them compassion and acceptance. I believe this should be at the heart of harm reduction.
As Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director of Uniting MSIC, states in the exhibition catalogue: “This exhibition reminds people in the local community that clients who visit the injecting centre are people first and foremost, all with different skills, talents, and a story to tell.” Yet, even with the evidence that harm reduction works, we still have people who still insist on criminalising drug users. People matter, and this includes drug users.
Art from the Heart of the Cross is being shown at the ArtHouse Hotel until 28 September. Some of the artworks can be seen (and bought) here. Consider supporting Unharm in their establishment of a drug safety testing charity here.