Amid a storm of controversy, the world's largest medically supervised injection center for heroin addicts opened for business May 6 in Sydney's seedy Kings Cross suburb.

The clinic aims to reduce drug overdoses while steering addicts to treatment and rehabilitation.

The clinic is similar to 46 such centers in Europe that supply clean needles but no drugs. But Australia's Uniting Church, one of the country's largest Protestant denominations, runs this one.

Many Christian groups in Australia strongly oppose the clinic. Pat Mesiti, who directs Teen Challenge, thinks injection centers prolong a life of addiction and send the wrong message to drug abusers.

"I cannot imagine Jesus putting needles in the hands of drug addicts," Mesiti says. "He took nails in his own arms to help destroy the needles in addicts' arms."

The clinic's manager, physician Ingrid van Beek, says the 18-month trial program has been a success. More than 830 drug users have administered 3,363 injections in the first three months. The clinic has referred 258 addicts to health services.

"A significant number of people have never had contact with health professionals before," van Beek says. "The added dimension of the relationship between the health professionals and daily users can only be worthwhile."

The clinic operates without federal government support. Three registered nurses and five drug and alcohol counselors assist up to 130 addicts daily, 16 at a time.

Booths can hold two people, encouraging addicts to inject in pairs. "We know that drug deaths are associated with being on your own," van Beek says. The clinic also includes a resuscitation room.

Overdoses Outside the Entrance

Nobody has ever died in an injection clinic. Critics, however, say the Uniting Church clinic has failed to prevent overdoses just a few feet from its nondescript entrance. Most of the 100 fatal overdoses in Kings Cross each year occur within 300 yards of the site, often after the clinic's hours. Addicts and prostitutes line the main street of Kings Cross. More than 400,000 people visit the suburb, population 21,000, each year.

Although the clinic supplies no heroin, addicts can bring in up to 1 gram. The leader of the Christian Democrat party, Fred Nile, says he is shocked that addicts can supply such amounts of illegal drugs in this "shooting gallery."

"One gram of heroin is enough for 10 or more heroin shots and is the usual quantity sold by drug pushers," Nile says.

An estimated 74,000 of Australia's 18.7 million people are heroin dependent. In 1998-99, more than 6,000 people were treated for heroin overdoses, which killed 359 people.

The federal government strongly opposes supervised heroin injections. Prime Minister John Howard has said the clinic condones the drug problem instead of fighting it. But the regional government in New South Wales already has called the clinic a success.

The Uniting Church was created in 1977 as a union of the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. Uniting Churches leader Harry Herbert says his Synod Standing Committee unanimously supported the clinic's application. "Although there have been critics within the church, many church members seem to take the view that a trial is worthwhile to establish the facts of the situation," Herbert says.

Other top Christian leaders disagree. Margaret Rodgers, director of Anglican Media Sydney, says the church does not condone drug use. "We are against injecting rooms," Rodgers says. "We are more into harm prevention."

Few Roman Catholics support the idea. Sydney's Catholic Archbishop George Pell says people are mistaken to support heroin clinics. Supplying needles to addicts "is a diversion from the main issue," Pell says, "which is to get people off drugs."

Related Elsewhere:

In 1999, Christianity Today reported on the Uniting Church's intentions to set up the injection center after the Catholic nuns running the project quit due to a warning from the Vatican. Christianity Today also covered the opening of the center last spring.

The Uniting Church's site has a page about the injecting room, but most of the information is quite old.

The Age provides a gallery of articles on Australia's heroin debate.

Other media coverage includes:

Kings Cross heroin injecting centre hailed a "success" — Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Aug. 15, 2001)
Australia opens first heroin injecting roomThe Guardian (May 8, 2001)
Drug injecting center faces siege by mediaThe Age (May 1, 2001)
Heroin injecting room to open — Australian Broadcasting Corporation (April 30, 2001)

More articles on the injecting room debate are available at Yahoo's full coverage area.

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