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Rod’s been using heroin for 38 years. This is what he wants you to know about drug addiction

When Rod was homeless, he needed to find places he could inject heroin without being seen. That’s how he ended up overdosing in the bathroom at the Victoria Park train station.

He said he would have died if it had not been for the person who happened to be in the stall next to him who called an ambulance.

After 38 years of using heroin in a country with a criminalised approach to illegal drugs, Rod — which is not is real name — said stigma and incarceration were endangering lives. 

Drug decriminalisation is a controversial topic in Victoria, where non-medical marijuana remains criminalised, unlike in South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory.

Addiction specialists argue decriminalisation allows drugs to be used more safely and saves lives — and has in countries that have done it like Portugal — while opponents say it would encourage drug use.

The Victoria Park train station men’s bathroom where Rod overdosed is now locked up.(ABC News: Ashleigh Barraclough)

Rod started using when he was 17 and living in an abusive household.

He grew up in a working class part of Melbourne’s northern suburbs, where he said young people turned to drugs because there was not much else to do. 

“I started using because my friends started using,” he said.

“My friends meant everything to me, and so I found solace in that sort of camaraderie.”

He’s now in his 50s, and his addiction has become something to manage. 

Rod spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity because of the stigma surrounding illegal drug use. 

“It’s a very isolating and lonely place,” he said.

“There’s a lot of shame attached to being a drug user.”

Withdrawing in the police cell

Rod said places where he scores drugs are heavily policed, which has resulted in him being arrested for possession.

“I’ve never been to prison, per se, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the cell,” he said.

A prison cell.
Rod says he experienced withdrawal in the police cell after being caught with drugs.(Flickr: Michael Coghlan)

Being in the cell usually lasts a few hours, he said, which leads to painful withdrawals.

“Withdrawal is one of the most abhorrent feelings that you’ll ever experience — you’re physically ill, and that happens in the cell,” he said.

“They don’t see you as someone that has had their own life, their own history.”

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Tony Langdon said the police’s focus was on arresting and prosecuting drug dealers, while connecting those suffering from addiction to support services.

“As part of Victoria Police’s 2020-2025 Drug Strategy, where appropriate police will look to divert and refer people who need help into appropriate services, while also continuing to trial different ways of supporting programs and services which are effective in reducing the harmful effects of drugs and related problems,” he said.

“This includes supporting public education and awareness around the impact of drug use, using early referral processes, increasing police discretion for diversion, and encouraging the use of treatment services.”

Former police sergeant says system ‘traumatises’ drug users

Greg Denham is a former Victoria Police senior sergeant turned alcohol and other drug (AOD) worker who does outreach with drug users in Melbourne’s western suburbs. 

“We are a service that they can trust, where they know they’re going to not be judged,” he said.

An older man wearing glasses and smiling takes a selfie.
Greg Denham made the unusual switch from police officer to AOD worker. (Supplied)

He said the police usually have good intentions around dealing with drug users, “but it’s so far removed from their lives”.