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When Richard Branson Looked Into The Eye of The Needle

27/11/2015 5:02 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Syringe and needle

It was less than a week later. I looked down at her small frame as I tilted her head back, checked her pupils and made sure the seal of the face mask was tight so that oxygen would flow. Only one short week, but I couldn't help thinking back to the last time I'd seen her. She had been so alive and joyful then, during an unexpected celebrity visit at the Injecting Centre. They don't happen all that often, celebrity visits, that is. She had been so excited she threw her arms around him. And he embraced her right back. They stood there, hugging, and her delight was clear -- her smile lit up her face. She was hugging Richard Branson. Sir Richard Branson!

What really made Richard's visit so special for us wasn't that he is one of the most well-known people in the world. It was his unhesitating openness. The idea of injecting drugs or meeting a drug addict is pretty confronting for many people. There's a sense that visitors to our service are at best unpredictable and chaotic, and at worst downright dangerous. Though Richard didn't seem at all fazed.

He spent time chatting to our visitors. He asked them a little of what their worlds were like. And he listened. One woman told him about redemption: "What people don't realise is that we're all redeemable. We might be junkies, but we're all redeemable. Anyone that has a pulse is redeemable, we just need a chance."

Richard Branson is a relentless advocate for harm minimisation strategies and is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Commission is calling for a radically different approach to the 'war on drugs'. Branson himself believes in a different approach, one based on compassion.

richard branson at the uniting sydney medically su

I told Richard that this service in Sydney's Kings Cross, an area known for illegal drug taking, has now been operational for nearly 15 years. It is still the only supervised injecting centre in the country, despite being the first in the English-speaking world. Already, nearly 100 such services operate in Europe, with Ireland's Government currently considering opening one in Dublin, and France expecting to open three such services before the end of 2016.

I discussed with Richard the well-documented benefits of supervised injecting centres: drug related deaths go down, referrals into treatment go up, there is less public injecting and fewer discarded needles, and importantly support is given to some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people to improve their lives.

The people who use supervised injecting centres are often homeless, often mentally unwell with histories of trauma and neglect, and all too commonly are entrenched in intergenerational cycles of poverty and, of course, drug use. Other community services don't always make contact with such people, but supervised injecting facilities do. We reach out and offer them a place free from violence and threats. We offer a space free of judgement, a place where they are accepted for who they are, despite their addictions. Richard understood this completely. I'd like to think the visit was as significant for him as it was for us.

All of these things came to mind as I looked at the unconscious woman lying in front of me. I gave the go ahead for an injection of 'Narcan' or Naloxone, which is used to prevent people from dying from an overdose. I remembered her thrill at not just meeting, but hugging Richard Branson, and that he hugged her right back. For that moment she felt worthy. For her, that's a feeling that doesn't come along too often.

I find it heartbreaking that so many of the people I see feel that unworthiness. They are grateful merely when we treat them as what they are -- fellow human beings. I have a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that sits, framed on my desk: "Where do all universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world."

The young woman on the floor in front of me coughed and opened her eyes as the Narcan took effect. "It's ok, you're ok," I said, and I smiled down at her.

Simply because someone is present and, therefore, able to intervene is why no one has ever died of drug overdose in a supervised injecting facility. It is why providing clean injecting equipment, which Australia has done for nearly 30 years, is not, and never will be enough. In places where clean injecting equipment is handed out we acknowledge that we provide the equipment to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne viruses. We provide the equipment and yet then we tell people to go away. We tell them to go away somewhere that we can't see them because using the equipment in front of us would be illegal.

In contrast, supervised injecting facilities provide the equipment and then say 'stay, come inside' rather than 'go away'. And by staying, we are there to witness, to accept, to offer help. And every now and again there is someone there with us who believes they deserve this support and believes they deserve to be helped. Someone like Richard Branson.

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The Uniting Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre is funded by the confiscated proceeds of crime. It is run by Uniting, a service of the Uniting Church NSW and ACT Synod.

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