A court decision has opened the way for one of Australia's leading churches, the Uniting Church, to set up the world's biggest legal heroin injecting room in Sydney's red light district.

The room is to be operated by the church under license from the state government of New South Wales as part of an 18-month trial aimed at preventing the 358 fatal overdoses that occur on average each year in the state.

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 for eight hours a day and staffed by nurses and drug-and-alcohol counselors.

The room, set up in a former pinball parlor in the red light district of Kings Cross, in central Sydney, contains eight stainless steel cubicles with two seats each, allowing 16 people to inject at any one time. Addicts will be provided with a clean syringe, a spoon, water and a swab.

Legislation has been changed to allow addicts to carry small quantities of drugs—meaning 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.

Last week the Supreme Court of New South Wales dismissed an attempt by the Kings Cross Chamber of Commerce to prevent the room from opening. The Chamber of Commerce, composed of proprietors of sex-shops and brothels, as well as other businesses, had claimed that Kings Cross was an inappropriate location because of its tourism trade.

Harry Herbert, a pastor and New South Wales executive director of the Uniting Church's Board for Social Responsibility, described the court decision as a "comprehensive victory."

"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.

Herbert said the Uniting Church was involved with the trial because it was a "basic act of compassion to the desperate. 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 judgment, Justice Brian Sully 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 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. After 10 days amid national outcry police closed the room, but the Wayside Chapel vowed to try again unless the New South Wales government moved to start a legal trial of injecting rooms.

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Shortly afterwards, and following a vote at a national drugs summit in support of legal injecting rooms, the New South Wales government passed legislation allowing a trial. The state premier, Bob Carr, whose brother died of a heroin overdose in the 1980s, has been a strong supporter.

Initially it had been intended that the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity run the injecting room, but they were forced to withdraw after the Vatican issued a decree that no Roman Catholic organization should be involved in such trials, describing them as "cooperation with grave evil."

The Uniting Church again stepped in, but this has caused controversy within the church, with conservatives in the denomination criticizing the plan as "foolish compassion."

The Uniting Church was formed in 1977 as a union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches and is the country's third-biggest Christian denomination, with 300,000 members and a total of 1.3 million Australians professing an association.

Attempts to set up injecting rooms in other states have been frustrated by legislative action and controversy within the churches.

The Catholic Archbishop-elect of Sydney, George Pell, has strongly opposed plans for injecting rooms, but the Primate of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Peter Carnley, has backed church involvement in the running of safe injecting rooms.

Proposals by state and territory governments to establish the injecting rooms have been vigorously opposed by Australia's prime minister, John Howard, who in turn has been heavily influenced by Major Brian Watters, of the Salvation Army. Prime Minister Howard predicted this week that the Sydney trial would fail.

Major Watters is the federal government's main adviser on drugs, and was appointed by Howard to the National Council on Drugs after his outspoken opposition to anything that could be interpreted as condoning heroin use.

In spite of his strong opposition, Howard has declined to legislate to stop the injecting rooms going ahead, saying that it is ultimately a state matter.

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Related Elsewhere

Other media coverage of the United Church's injecting room includes:
Heroin injecting centre faces new challenge - ninemsn (Apr 11, 2001)

Heroin and death prowl Sydney's Kings Cross - Reuters (Apr. 9, 2001)

Heroin war: First shots firedThe Sydney Morning Herald (Apr. 8, 2001)

Injecting room trial will fail, PM predictsThe Sydney Morning Herald (Apr. 7, 2001)

Heroin injecting room can open today - The Australian (Apr. 6, 2001)

Injecting room to go ahead - The Age (Apr. 6, 2001)

'Shooting gallery' for heroin users gets go-ahead - The Independent (Apr. 6, 2001)

'Moral victory' as judge clears way for injecting roomThe Sydney Morning Herald (Apr. 6, 2001)

More news articles and opinion pieces about the injecting room debate are available from Yahoo's full coverage area.