What is a church doing running a facility where illegal drugs can be used openly? And why?
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Full transcript of Episode 6 – Fair Treatment
Dr MARIANNE JAUNCEY: You know I’ve been asked that drugs are bad Dr. Jauncey wouldn’t you say drugs are bad. My response is that wonderful drugs are what saved my child when he had a very severe infection. Drugs that will allow my child to have an anaesthetic. When he broke bone and needed to go and have surgery that’s a wonderful things. Drugs medicines drugs there are also things that most of us who use drugs are the coffee we drink in the morning and drugs and a glass of wine that we have at night to relax or anything which changed the way we think or feel or act. But we reserve this special viement amount of hate for certain drugs and people who use those certain drugs.
HOST: That’s Dr Marianne Jauncey. She runs the Medically supervised injecting centre based in Kings Cross in Sydney Australia.
US President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971. But by any measure, it’s a war nobody’s winning.
MARIANNE JAUNCEY: Unmitigated disaster is unmitigated as to what’s happening across North America. To put it in context in Australia at the moment there’s about three people dying every day an accidental overdose. No that’s not all heroin. In fact these days there’s much more prescription opiates which are causing those deaths. In the United States of America. Okay their population is bigger. But it’s not three people not even 30 people. It’s 133.
HOST: So what do you do if you want to create a different way to deal with drug use, and address the harm that it can cause the person using drugs and those around them?
AMANDA: Today on change makers. I’m here in Sydney Town Hall with an extraordinary story about drug law reform and a church. It’s not a typical coupling but here for over 20 years the Uniting Church has played a leading role in trying to minimise the harm that drugs can play in people’s lives. And we aren’t talking about timid support. I’m talking about embracing some of the most controversial but also evidence based forms of support. So why do they do it. And what have they achieved. Let’s go.
I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to ChangeMakers, the podcast telling stories about people changing the world.
We are supported by the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at sydney.edu.au/policy-lab.
HOST: Marion McConnell grew up in the country – in a place called Lithgow – a few hours west of Sydney. That’s where she met her husband Brian.They had three children, and after moving around a little they settled in Canberra.
MARION: When we moved to Canberra I didn’t have a job I have three children and stayed home to look after them. I did a lot of volunteer work especially around the schools and the church.
HOST: Marion was part of the Uniting Church – a group of smaller protestant churches that came together in the 1970s, and today is the third largest church in Australia.
The church was important to Marion.
MARION: You meet with people in like minds and I always enjoyed the you know the social justice side of the church as a caring side of the church.
HOST: But it wasn’t just about being in the church.
MARION: We must always I think connect with people in all walks of life not just in our own circles so I’ve always tried to you know to to walk the path with all sorts of people.
HOST: This story is about her eldest child.
MARION: He did well at school. He often topped his class. He was good at mathematics he was good at English and I think sometimes he wasn’t challenged. He played sport he was very good at cross-country running he won the ACT championships when he was 11 and he played soccer music he learnt the organ. Enjoyed music and then as he as he got older he did cryptic crosswords and he played chess. So he was you know he did a lot of different things and he was like most kids like guess as he grew up but he was a very sensitive person.
HOST: He had great gifts, and at the same time school was hard.
MARION: He often got on his reports from school the teachers would often give him an A for attainment and a C for effort so he didn’t always put in the effort that he could. He went on to university and got a degree in computer science. I think he struggled. He didn’t struggle with the ability to do it. I think he was struggling a little bit during those years with you know trying to discover himself.
HOST: So he was a pretty typical twenty something.
MARION: He did enjoy computer work. So as that program. So but sometimes he talked about about the law. I mean he wasn’t settled in what he was doing. I think he was still working it out.
HOST: Then in 1992, this happened.
MARION: One night we were away woken from our sleep in the early hours of the morning by a friend who said that our son was in trouble not far from where we lived. So we hurried down there and my daughter felt there was something urgently wrong so she called an ambulance and not long as we arrived really as we arrived the ambulance did also and our son was unconscious and the ambulance people were reviving him and they told us that he overdosed on heroin.
And that was a huge shock because it was the first we really knew about his heroin use he was living at home and we didn’t know it might sound strange but that’s that’s the way it was.
HOST: It was a shock, but it was also an answer.
MARION: But you know we had some idea I had some idea that he wasn’t always happy. There seemed to be something a bit amiss and so in some ways I was relieved that this was it. We’d found his issue and and he was relieved that we that we now knew and that we would be to help him and love him.
HOST: But before they could begin to talk, the night turned.
MARION: But unfortunately that night before our son could speak to us really the police also came and they they questioned me like I was a criminal. I was really so shocked while my son was lying there on the ground. Could’ve been dying except for the help from the ambulance and they were questioning me questioning me. They wanted to find out where our son had got the drugs and I hadn’t even known he was using them but they followed him to the ambulance took him to the hospital and he was quite happy to go to the hospital with the ambulance. Police followed. They went into his room. We weren’t allowed in there. And they questioned him and trying to find out who who the dealer was and of course that frightened him because if he told them who the dealer was he could have got bashed up or anything could happen.
HOST: After extensive questioning, the police retreated.
MARION: So he discharged himself and came home with us that night and we talked for hours and he was as I said he was relieved that that we could now talk about things and we could help him and that we had we didn’t we didn’t shun him or or tried to punish him we just wanted to care care about him.
HOST: But it wasn’t over.
MARION: But he was still afraid of the police and in a few days he took himself off on a holiday to get away for awhile. He rang me the first night and said he’d had a good drive and the car went well because his father helped him fix up before it went. And that was the last I heard from our son. The next was a phone call from police to say our son had overdosed and died alone. This time no one to call an ambulance.
HOST: Only days after her son’s death, Marion and her husband Brian had to prepare his funeral. They met with the Minister from the Uniting Church.
MARION: When the minister arrived at our home one of the first things he said was What do you want me to tell people about your son’s death. And … that’s because of the indoctrination we’ve had over people who use drugs … that you don’t want to be associated with such people and you know just being a good upstanding family in the community so the minister obviously said What do you want me to tell people what happened to your son. And you know I was just wondering what am I going to say here.
And my husband just spoke out pretty much straight away and just said tell the truth and I thought isn’t it wonderful that he said that.
HOST: Marion and Brian did what many in their situation were scared to do. They confronted what happened to their son, and in doing so, it begged the question, how could this have been prevented?
For the police, the death of Marion’s son was just another number on the daily tally of fatal overdoses. For politicians, it didn’t even register.
It got worse. By 1999 there were one thousand seven hundred and forty deaths in Australia from heroin overdose.
While these deaths were happening everywhere, the most deaths happened in a place called Kings Cross in Sydney.
MARIANNE: Kings Cross in the late 1990s was actually pretty edgy. It was busy. It was loud. It was sometimes a little bit scary. And basically the streets were awash with heroin is the reality.
HOST: Marianne Jauncey got her first job as a doctor in Kings Cross. She was looking for a role where she could help people in a different kind of way.
MARIANNE: A friend who actually ripped out an ad that they say in the newspaper and sent it to me and said hey I think this suits you and said I’m flexible an eclectic approach used to work with vulnerable populations in King’s Cross.
HOST: Working in Kings Cross led to a fast learning curve for a young woman who had grown up in a fairly sheltered middle class family.
MARIANNE: And would have prided myself as always being somebody who would have been gentle but I don’t think I had any understanding really of what life was like for somebody on the streets or dependent on various substances.
HOST: She soon gained a new perspective.
MARIANNE: There were certainly times back then and continuing to this day where I realised that was there but for the grace of God go I. I am now somebody who goes to church those words particularly resonate I think because you would he repeatedly said horrific desperately sad outrageous stories of human existence from people talking about their childhood. You know it occurred to me more than once. That stuff that happened to me I would be somebody who would turn to drugs as a means of coping means of escape.
HOST: But Marriane’s clients weren’t just vulnerable. With the heroin crisis, they were dying.
MARIANNE: The people that I would see I knew there would only be another month or two before I hear about another person dying. Sometimes less than that sometimes a matter of weeks. Within 200 metres of where the service is now situated at least twice a day on average every 12 hours round the clock seven days a week 52 weeks a year an ambulance was attending an accidental heroin overdose.
HOST: By 1999 it was at breaking point.
MARIANNE: There is a death every week in this local neighborhood.
HOST: The shock-jocks and right wing tabloid press were building a familiar narrative in response.
MARIANNE: The prevailing sentiment was if you’re using illegal drugs well you’ve created your own problem. You’re the cause of your own demise don’t expect us from a government taxpayers fund you know taxpayers money to pick up the pieces you have to use in. You make a choice.
HOST: It reached an apex at the beginning of 1999.
MARIANNE: And so in 1999 we had the front page photo in the Sun Herald in January a headline that said we give our kids heroin injecting kits instead of help. Now the health minister admits is wrong. That was the front page headline emblazoned across the Sun Herald and I don’t think anybody back then could have really foreseen where that was going to go.
HOST: A State Election was only months away. The leader of the Government, Premier Bob Carr, had to respond.
MARIANNE: The Premier at the time Bob Carr in response to that front page article. said we need to do something different. So if I’m re-elected in May I will hold a drug summit. We would invite the experts the researchers the doctors nurses the counsellors the social workers whether the researchers the policy makers we were inviting families and we would invite the people who use drugs are affected by drugs and all come together and have a conversation.
HOST: Instead of giving in to the narrative from the tabloid press, the government created an opportunity to move the debate in a different direction.
HOST: Bob Carr was re-elected and plans began for a May Drug Summit. People who supported a new approach to drugs start to get organised.
One supporter was Reverend Ray Richmond from the Wayside Chapel. It’s part of the broader Uniting Church.
HOST: Wayside Chapel was based in Kings Cross, on the front line of the heroin crisis. Reverend Ray Richmond was one of the church’s most provocative leaders at the time, at least according to Reverend Simon Hansford the Uniting Church’s current leader.
REV SIMON HANSFORD: And Ray was one of those guys who engaged and called a spade a spade in the best sense of the word. It was a pain in the neck but that’s what we need.
HOST: Ray Richmond wasn’t going to let the opportunity of the Drug Summit pass by. So in the weeks before the Drug Summit he did – what any good Reverend would do – he created a heroin injecting centre inside his church … Well, sort of.
He’d read about heroin injecting centres in Europe. Local doctors in Kings Cross had been talking about setting up something similar there, for years.
Even the police agreed a different approach was needed.
The idea was to provide a space for heroin users to inject, where there were doctors on staff who could keep people alive if required.
Ray thought it was perfect for Kings Cross.
So he wrote to the Church to let them know that he planned to run a supervised injecting room for a day – you know, like a media stunt – to show what it would be like. Harry Herbert, the head of the Church’s social service arm UnitingCare, was in the meeting that received Ray’s letter.
HARRY HERBERT: The Reverend Norman MacDonell was the secretary and he presented this letter from Ray. The head of finance and property didn’t like it at all. He said oh the insurance people won’t be happy with this. And I remember that Norman who wasn’t an adventurous man generally said well Jimmy was the head of finance and property Jim we can’t let the insurers run the church. And so Ray got a sort of half blessing from the church not permission but no one was going to interrupt what he was going to do.
HOST: So Wayside Chapel ran Kings Cross’s first supervised injecting centre, for a day.
But, not everyone in the church liked Ray Richmond’s civil disobedience.
HARRY HERBERT: Another minister of the Uniting Church the Reverend Fred Nile who later on left the Uniting Church but at that time he was a minister of the Uniting Church. He got the local police commander to arrest the Reverend Ray Richmond for doing something illegal.
HOST: But the civil disobedience had achieved its goal. An injecting room was now on the public agenda.
HOST: But there was still a problem.
When the Premier opened the Drug Summit he was pretty clear that he opposed an injecting centre.
MARIANNE: He actually said at the beginning was not a supporter.
HOST: Could the Drug Summit be a space that could change his mind?
Harry Herbert was there.
HARRY HERBERT: Well it was an unusual sort of event. There were various people from community groups who were there and both people who were for changing the laws and establishing an injecting centre and also people who were totally against it.
HOST: There was something special about the space of a Drug Summit. It slowed things down. Front page headlines weren’t as influential as all the people in the room – the experts, but even more importantly, families who had been affected by drug use.
The Premier started to shift, and he brought the public along with him.
MARIANNE: They could see somebody grappling with a really thorny topic and you know learning and developing and changing his thinking and I think most people acknowledge it’s okay to change your mind if you learn new information.
HOST: By the end, the Premier changed his mind. Remarkably, the Summit recommended the establishment of a trial medically supervised injecting centre, amongst a long list of other proposals.
But there was a condition.
MARIANNE: The government wanted it to be at arm’s length. They didn’t want the government health service being sent to supervise you getting facility.
HOST: So they had a victory, but with conditions.
They quickly identified that Kings Cross would be the best place for the injecting centre, not only because of the heroin crisis but because most residents supported it.
And, the government thought they had found a good partner – the Sisters of Charity who ran the local St Vincent’s Hospital.
St Vincent’s had been on the ground for decades and Dr Alex Wodak, the Director of their Alcohol and Drug Service, was ready to play a leading role to make an injecting centre.
But there was a problem – or perhaps you could call it – a divine intervention.
HARRY HERBERT: And then of course the Vatican stuck a dirty great spanner in the works by saying that the Sisters of Charity were not allowed to run the center.
HOST: Harry Herbert ran Unitingcare – the very large social service arm of the Uniting Church. He was a fighter for justice from way back.
HARRY HERBERT: My grandfather was a union organiser. So the family had a bit of history in that when I was a student I was involved in the Vietnam Moratorium marches and the campaign against apartheid.
HOST: He took that iconoclasm into the church.
HARRY HERBERT: The teachings of Jesus it’s because of the concept of love and humanity in the Christian scriptures. All of that is what makes it so important and I think underneath most Christians are political just as some are on the right wing and some are on the left wing. I was on the left wing.
HOST: By the late 1990s Harry was a public figure in the media. He was well respected as a social justice advocate, he knew most of the politicians and was considered a bit of a player.
He attended the Drug Summit and was pleased with its outcomes.
HARRY HERBERT: They called it a safe injecting room at the time and I. And to me that was a good result and I didn’t think we’d be any more involved than that.
HOST: So somewhat harmlessly, after the Sisters of Charity had been forced to abandon running the injecting centre, he was having a chat on ABC radio about the issue.
HARRY HERBERT: So in November 1999 I was in the airport on my way to Tamworth. I think it was Sally Loane was then an announcer on the ABC Radio and she phoned me and said Well would you would you run it. Uniting Care would you run the centre to which I said well yeah we would think about it positively.
HOST: Marianne remembers parts of the conversation.
MARIANNE JAUNCEY: We’re a church. At some level we believe you know basically said we believe in the sanctity of human life and yet this is going to save life.
HOST: Harry thought it was just another hypothetical media conversation, nothing more. He then got on the plane to take his one hour trip to Tamworth in regional New South Wales.
HARRY HERBERT: And when I got off the plane at Tamworth I remember that I had the largest number of phone messages on my phone that I have ever had before or thereafter.
HOST: Everyone had called. Senior Ministers from the Government were desperate to find out whether he would follow through on his statement.
Public servants were curious to explore what it might practically look like.
And he got more than a few calls from inside the church. What the hell had he just done?
The ABC interview quickly created a process. The church had to work this idea through. And it would be hard. After all – it was a broad church. There were plenty of conservative members concerned about the idea of setting up a centre for heroin users to safely inject.
The Government might have had a summit and the press might have shifted, but this was now the Church offering to run this. Is that what a church is meant to do?
Reverend Simon Hansford – the now Moderator of the Uniting Church – was on the committee that was going to decide what happened.
SIMON HANSFORD: I remember this painful wonderful conversation where the conservative elements of the church and the left and the progressive elements the church were engaged in this heated conversation about should we do this thing or not.
It is one of those great moments in the life of the church where one of the more conservative guys and younger guys got up and said You know I don’t agree with this but he said I’ve heard convincing arguments about this. So if God’s in this it’ll be okay if God is not in it it will fall over. So I’m prepared to give this my Go ahead. And so we went from being a divided room to being united room my memory of it is I think I think we had unanimity or almost unanimity on going ahead.
HOST: Unanimity. Sorry. Unanimity.
What’s happened here? Lets just back track again?
Kings Cross is having a drug crisis. The church was engaged, a bit, locally. A few went to the Drug Summit.
Then a few months later, based on a question posed by a journalist – the Church was set to be running Australia’s and one of the world’s first medically supervised injecting centres.
This was a massive leap.
But no pressure. Making the Injecting centre work would simply be a test of their eternal vigilance.
HOST: To help make it easier they hired someone with a lot of experience.
HARRY HERBERT: Well Ingrid van Beek and I would say that the appointment of her as the first medical director was an inspired decision.
HOST: When it came to harm reduction, Ingrid van Beek was the ‘go to’ person in Kings Cross. She had visited most of the injecting centres around the world, she’d spent years campaigning for the creation of the centre and had been a senior doctor in the Cross for decades.
Step one done.
Next – they needed a place to house the centre.
HARRY HERBERT: Get a license and a licence over a particular property. And that proved not to be an easy task.
HOST: At the beginning, finding a space didn’t look hard. They had been given a long list of places from the Sisters of Charity.
HARRY: So of the 42 suggestions that St Vincent’s had in their folder none of them were any good because none of the owners were prepared to be part of it.
There was one suggestion which was ruled out by the police commissioner because he said the owner of the property had some criminal associations. So and finding a property in Kings Cross that the owner didn’t have criminal associations was no easy easy matter.
HOST: Eventually, they found a location.
HARRY HERBERT: But finally there was a long unused property at 66 Darlinghurst Road which had been established as a pinball parlor but hadn’t been successful and it was owned half by Channel Nine and half by Greater Union theatres. And so we approached them.
HOST: To get it they needed a sub-lease, but the owner wasn’t keen. He thought it would give him a bad reputation amongst his business associates in Kings Cross.
HARRY HERBERT: He made a suggestion that I come to a meeting of the King’s Cross Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and address the assembled multitude and convince them, which of course I stupidly did and was a complete flop in no way did I convince any of them he was there and he said. I asked him later I said George how do you think I went and he put his thumbs down.
HOST: Local support started slipping away. The local police came out against them.
There was a brief reprieve when the Government offered to help sort out some of the issues.
But then, the local Chamber of Commerce took them all to court.
HARRY HERBERT: Which delayed our opening and went to the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
HOST: The hearings took time. There were appeals. Eventually, the Church won, and, for good measure, Harry Herbert pursued the Chamber of Commerce for costs,
HARRY HERBERT: The costs end up being 30000 I think and we pursued them. I particularly pursued them over that and took them in and had them made bankrupt and I think I got 20 dollars and if an old filing cabinet out of it and but nevertheless it was the end of that organization.
HOST: The score so far: God 1, Chamber of Commerce: zero.
With a space secure they opened their doors at 6pm on Sunday 6 May 2001.
HOST: So how does a medically supervised injecting centre work?
There are three stages. Stage One is registration.
MARIANNE: We will register you with the service and like any other health service there’ll be a series of questions that we go through.
They get buzzed in to stage 2 to actually the supervised injecting room itself. There are eight stainless steel booths where up to two people can sit a time so at any one time you can have up to 16 people who are self-administering. We provide the injecting equipment and then people take a seat.
HOST: Then people move to the final section.
MARIANNE: So in stage three after the injection is actually one of the most important areas and probably my sort of favourite space away at the centre it’s known as the after care or the chill room. And that’s where we encourage people to sit and hang out for bit. So it might be that they just want to have a tea or coffee it might be that they want to read the paper and do a crossword.
So it might be that the first few conversations we have with somebody are about. The weather or about the earrings or about. What’s going on in the paper today and if we get a sense that that’s all people are ready to talk about that’s fine. But what we’ve learned is that if you gradually gain somebody’s sense of trust and then the next time you talk about them they go and treat me badly and they you know they were polite they were. You get a therapeutic relationship with somebody and that’s what’s crucial. That’s actually what makes this place so special so we know room number two stage number 2 is where the drug injecting take place that actually was the most crucial aspect of this service is room number three which is where the connection takes place.
HOST: No one has ever died of an overdose at the centre, even though there have been 7000 overdoses. And that’s despite a lot of traffic – with over 160 people using the space every day.
Having a medically supervised injecting centre is huge.
But at another level, it should have been only just the start.
There was something else that was discussed at the Drug Summit.
MARIANNE: Interestingly if you go back and look at those resolutions all of which were acted upon all of which were responded to all of which led to significant positive change except one there was one resolution that never happened. And that was a recommendation to have criminal sanctions for the use of drugs. So it kind of feels like. We’ve got a little bit of unfinished business in New South Wales. That was in 1999 Jackson that was the one thing that couldn’t be done.
HOST: Back in a moment.
HOST: Since the death of her son, Marion McConnell’s life changed.
MARION McCONNELL: Well I guess in some ways I didn’t choose it did I. I mean it was thrust upon me one might say. I certainly didn’t choose that I lost the son to drugs and I often wonder now what my life would have been if it hadn’t happened. My son was still here. But the main thing is is to the injustice the complete and utter injustice of these prohibition drug laws. That’s that’s really what’s driven me.
HOST: Her son was treated like a criminal and that contributed to his death.
MARION: That night on the oval I just knew immediately that this wasn’t right what was happening here was not right. He should not have been involvement of the police.
HOST: Marion and her now late husband Brian turned themselves into change makers. They formed a group called Families and Friends for Drug Reform. Their experience made them quite radical in their policy demands.
MARION: Prohibition was more the problem than it was more the problem than what the drugs were themselves.
HOST: Prohibition – the issue that remained outstanding after the Drug Summit.
These families experiences attested to this failing.
Marion and Brian got organised, particularly in the Church.
MARION: We did a lot of talks around different congregations speaking telling our story and telling talking about prohibition problems that causes.
HOST: But it wasn’t easy. Their son died in 1992. Two decades later, there had been no significant change at a policy level. They struggled to get support from the church too.
MARION: It was a hard road and very depressing at times I guess because it seemed to be so difficult to get a story across.
You felt very down a lot of the time but but you always there was always that belief that what we were doing was right.
HOST: But then something changed.
In late 2015, twenty three years after she began her campaign, Marion received a call to come and make a presentation in Sydney at an important church meeting.
In the lead up, congregations from Canberra had galvanised around the issue of drug law reform. At the time the Moderator of the Church – Myung Hwa Park – was from Canberra and she encouraged her group to push the issue across the Uniting Church as a whole.
MARIANNE JAUNCEY: I think she was allowed to present because of the moderator of the CEO that we had at that time that there was an interest and a sense that this is this is important.
HOST: The CEO that Dr Marianne Jauncey is referring to is Peter Worland. Peter had succeeded Harry Herbert as the head of the church’s social service arm, now called Uniting.
He was a radical – in the radical tradition of the church.
PETER WORLAND: They could significantly change the social structure social arrangements of the society based on the very very basic and pure understanding of what Jesus of Nazareth said when he said you know we should be helping those who are the least of these in our community. And drug addicts as I saw them were very much the least of these. So I was galvanized behind this particular campaign.
HOST: Peter created a whirlstrom when he entered Uniting. He pushed people to think big on the issue of drug reform.
PETER WORLAND: So I raised it with them and with others and with Marianne saying we can’t just keep doing what we’ve done well like we’ve already been you’ve been a success at that. No deaths in 15 years. Fantastic but where’s that taking. Where’s that taking the whole community with this lesson. What can we politically do. What can we do to change the thinking of the population.
HOST: Changing drug policy wasn’t an abstract concept for Peter.
Amanda: Why were you prepared to push the church to take more political risk on this?
PETER WORLAND: Because member of my family nearly died. And I thought it was time for me to pull my finger out and instead of just riding on Harry’s coat tails and the good things that he’d done were to do something to significantly change the way in which drugs illicit drugs are managed in our community. That’s why.
HOST: Drug reform wasn’t about giving charity to some objectified poor person. This issue was alive in so many families.
Marion and Brian had bravely begun advocating for drug decriminalisation. The movement had grown. They now had the help of leaders who understood, like Peter Worland. They were part of a Church long engaged in drug reform. Maybe something new could begin?
When Marion came to the church meeting in Sydney – her experience and her years of campaigning were evident.
Marianne Jauncey remembers.
MARIANNE: I listened to what she had to say but she was very clear that you know even back then we needed wholesale reform and change.
HOST: But passion isn’t enough to create power.
MARIANNE: At that point. So this would have been 2015. I was not expecting that. to go anywhere if I’m honest.
HOST: She wasn’t the only one, Marion McConnell talked to Peter Worland after the meeting.
PETER WORLAND: I said to her we will raise this up and I don’t think she believed me.
HOST: But, afterwards things started to happen.
Only weeks after the meeting, Dr Marianne Jauncey was asked to write a paper on drug policy for the Uniting Church Synod. It included all the usual stuff about funding for treatment, but it also called for decriminalisation.
Was something shifting?
That paper would be the basis of a policy that was to be submitted to the Uniting Church Synod.
But the question was, would it get support?
MARIANNE: I remember saying Peter don’t be upset when we only get one recommendation through. I’m not expecting to get anything through from a church on decriminalisation you know this is a progressive church. You know look at what’s happening around gay marriage you know they have to do so and that’s okay. So don’t be distressed.
HOST: Peter was not only passionate. He was an organiser.
PETER: We’d gone to a lot of work to ensure that the key leaders understood exactly what they were voting for.
HOST: The Synod meeting was set for April 2016. Over 400 church leaders from across the State of New South Wales would be there. The plan was for Marion McConnell and Dr Marianne Jauncey to address the meeting.
MARIANNE: So Marion and I presented and we each had a very down to the second we had a certain number of minutes that were allowed to talk so each presented.
HOST: Peter’s anxiety was about how the motion would be received. Would it be seen as a discussion on an issue – about drug policy – or would it be seen as a debate about the role of the Church more broadly?
PETER WORLAND: Howard our prime minister once said to us you know the churches have got a place they should stay in their place. And we in politics have got another place and we should look after policy. Well that’s rubbish. The people should have a view and the people need to be educated to a view and stimulated fermented and that’s what the church is really good at.
HOST: But would that argument about the role of the church end up in this debate?
PETER WORLAND: Yes there are a lot of speeches and the normal people that we thought would particularly older men from the country would say what they would say but none none of them used the john. I was most worried about the John Howard argument. They went to points of particularity about what happens if this and that and if the next thing of course they beautifully handled by the experts who we had there. So they didn’t go to the broader question of what’s the role of the church.
HOST: After its allocated time, the meeting moved on. The vote would happen the next day. Dr Marianne Jauncey remembers Peter Worland promising to send her a text message when the vote was in.
Peter was in the room
PETER WORLAND: I did not expect it to get through. I was astounded when some of the very socially conservative voted as one 400 and nearly in the air in favour of decriminalization. This is not there is not to my knowledge no mainstream church in the world has taken such a radical view. So my radical Christ inside my heart was absolutely screaming with pleasure that we were we were en route with this. This is this is what we’re here to do.
HOST: Peter messaged Marianne. They had won.
MARIANNE JAUNCEY: I just wrote back and said shit really. The CEO of Uniting top approached me quite recently of. He really. Couldn’t believe that. You know I was smiling. I was awed I was I speechless. I was speechless. And they’re still part of me to this day that she just wants to wander round and shake those people those people’s hands and say you know in a few days you got something that the rest of us have been trying to convince society on for years. I don’t know. Was it their Christian faith. Was it this focus on the people and life and well-being and flourishing communities. Was it I don’t I don’t I don’t know quite what miracle happened that they got through this time but it did but it did.
HOST: Following the Synod uniting believe that the policy couldn’t be just words on paper. They needed to make decriminalisation happen. They began to assemble a staff team and their network of allies that could prosecute a campaign. One of the team members was Bronwyn Seneque.
BRONWYN SENEQUE: The fair treatment campaign was started by uniting with a specific focus of changing the drug laws within NSW and ACT as well as destigmatizing people use drugs within the community. So really understanding that people who used drugs need a social and health focus rather than a criminal one.
HOST: They are taking it pretty seriously. In October 2018 two thousand people came to Sydney Town Hall for the launch.
For Marion McConnell the Church’s embrace of this issue has been surreal.
MARION: All I was really after was that the church would support others that were trying to bring about change like if someone came. If some organisation or person came out with a statement that said something like you know we need to change these laws. So what came out of it in the end was extraordinary that the church was actually taking this on as their issue that was extraordinary.
HOST: It made her reconceive what was possible.
MARION: It took me back to the days when we worked so hard to set up forums for speakers on on on issues around prohibition and we’d be overjoyed if we got 100 people at our ACT assembly and I’m looking around at that crowd of 2000 at the Sydney Town Hall and thinking wow we have come a long way and this is all because of our Uniting Church.
HOST: The church.
This campaign spoke to what the modern church should be. At a time where Churches around the world were losing their relevance – or worse – being found to be the cause of abuse. – this campaign offered a different path for the church.
REV SIMON HANSFORD: The Uniting Church’s challenge has always been to itself has always been we can’t just preach the gospel. We actually have to live it. There’s a quote attributed to Saint Francis that says Be always preaching the gospel and if necessary use words.
PETER WORLAND:This is our core business our core business is the least of these and everyone’s got one in every family. This is not something that happens to other people.
HOST: This is not about empty platitudes about family values. This is about caring for real families that actually exist.
PETER: It’s it’s to do things which are radical and different and lead the society the community in which we live on the most difficult issues particularly as they relate to people who have been subjugated devalued and put down the least of these. We didn’t have to go far.
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