Syringe Vending Machines on the Cards in Australia

By Sarah Beller 05/20/13

Researchers propose a radical response to Melbourne's heroin problem.

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A syringe vending machine in Sidney.
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In response to a surge in heroin use in Melbourne, Australia, researchers from the Burnet Institute are proposing a radical new approach: syringe vending machines. The dispensaries, which are already being piloted in Sydney, would operate like drink vending machines by charging a nominal fee for syringes and providing access to clean, safe equipment 24/7. According to a report released today, drug use in North Richmond, an area of Melbourne, is "widespread, frequent and highly visible," with drug users flocking from other parts of the city to openly buy and sell drugs—mostly heroin. Many addicts say they inject in public, out of desperation and fear of withdrawal; discarded syringes often end up littering parks, streets, and even residential driveways. To address the situation and curb the spread of disease, public health experts have proposed 24-hour access to sterile injection equipment and greater collaboration between police and local services to encourage service use. “Effective public health responses require whole-of-community, holistic strategies that balance the requirements of health with those of law enforcement to reduce harm to individuals and the community,” says Professor Paul Dietze, one of the authors of the report. "We have tried different measures and the problem persists, so it's time to change our approach." He says that poor access to clean needles after hours and on weekends puts drug users at risk because they are forced to share equipment and re-use needles from syringe disposal bins.

In the US, there has been a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs since 1988, though it was briefly overturned by Obama in 2009. Many states have needle exchange programs, which are funded at state and local levels, and the laws vary widely. But needle exchange programs have been proven to work—saving $3 to $6 million in medical care and other expenses for every dollar spent, getting participants into treatment, and helping increase employment rates. Harm reduction advocates want to expand access to syringes in the US because they view addiction as a public health issue, not only a legal one. Depending on the success of Melbourne's new approach, the US may want to consider expanding their vending machine options.

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.

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