Written by Featured, Griffith Review

Weaponising privilege

I wrote a longform profile of Dr Alex Wodak and colleagues and their fight for drug law reform.

Winning the war on the war on drugs

ON 12 NOVEMBER 1986, physician Alex Wodak and his staff fixed a note to the door of their building near to St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst, Sydney: ‘If you would like a clean needle and syringe, free, press this buzzer.’

Providing needles and syringes to drug-users was illegal. The Netherlands had introduced needle exchange to prevent HIV infection two years earlier with promising results, but in Australia police and politicians argued against it, claiming it sent the wrong message and would increase drug use – arguments now familiar in the pill-testing debate.

Alex had written thirteen separate submissions to the NSW Department of Health requesting permission to run a pilot needle-exchange program, but knew he wouldn’t get permission any time soon. So he called his staff together.

‘The time to act is now,’ he said. ‘We have a chance to save lives; to prevent misery, suffering and death. I’m asking you to help.’

He warned that they could be charged with aiding and abetting drug use. But breaking the law was a last resort in a critical situation. Alex laid twenty dollars on the table and asked where the hospital’s diabetes unit sourced their needles and syringes. The staff also threw in money. They bought one thousand from a wholesaler.

They were nervous and excited. They didn’t know who would come. Maybe it’d just be the police. They waited.

ALEX WODAK IS ready to talk: ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘Let’s do this!’

We’re in his home in Darlinghurst to talk about his thirty years as a physician, researcher and advocate for drug law reform. I’m interested in his experiences of dealing with prohibition and how it punishes the marginalised. ; in the ways those who strive for a better world do their work – and what remains to be done. But to explain how his Let’s do this sounds – as he stands from the kitchen table, rinses his breakfast bowl and sits in the chair adjacent – I need to take you back ten minutes.

I’ve walked up Oxford Street this clear Sydney morning, turned at the sandstone wall of the old Darlinghurst Gaol, passed Green Park and St Vincent’s Hospital into to a tucked-away block of flats on the edge of Kings Cross. Standing at the ground-floor intercom, I’m preparing to meet the man who worked with others to defy authorities and introduce needle exchange before it was legal during the 1980s HIV/AIDS epidemic; who was part of a group who used civil disobedience to operate a medically supervised injecting room in the 1990s; who served as director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent’s Hospital for thirty years and continues as emeritus consulting physician; who responded to John Howard’s attacks on these programs by telling the Australian public their Prime Minister didn’t understand science or evidence; who is greeted with applause and cheers by his supporters, and is jeered by supporters of the war on drugs. (Miranda Devine once called him ‘Australia’s pre-eminent pusher’.)

Standing outside the locked foyer, I imagine him as earnest, permanently frowning; someone who values efficiency. And my nervousness is compounded because the intercom speaker is so soft I’ve missed his first few sentences of directions, rendering the rest of the instructions obsolete. He finishes, and the buzzer for the lock sounds.

I stare at the intercom, half-swallowing my words: ‘The sound is too soft, I couldn’t hear…’

‘Pardon?’ he says.

‘Can you say it again?’ I ask.

Read the rest in Griffith Review 67: Matters of Trust.

Club 77 on William St, Kings Cross