Drug consumption rooms – aimed at reducing fatal overdoses and taking users off the streets – were proposed this week in a new report and instantly rejected by Home Office drugs minister Vernon Coaker (pictured).
“Drug consumption rooms do not form any part of our strategy,” he said.
But the idea may still be piloted if it gets enough support from local authorities and police.
The report was produced by an independent working group set up by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Members include two senior policemen from the Association of Chief Police Officers’ drugs committee and eminent academics
The controversial plan would launch specialist booths called drug consumption rooms, allowing users to inject in a clean and safe environment, with the aim of cutting drug-related deaths.
Staff would be on hand to help users if they should overdose but would not be able to assist with the injection of drugs. They could offer advice and provide sterilised needles and clean water.
With an estimated 357,000 problematic drug takers, the UK has the highest number of users and the most drug related-deaths in the EU, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addicts.
Decrease in drug-related deaths
Community Care spoke to Josch Steinmetz, project manager of a drug consumption room in Frankfurt, which opened in 1994 in a red light district notorious for public drug use.
He said: “We have had a decrease in drug related-deaths, open drug use and discarded used syringes in public in this area and over the whole of Frankfurt since we opened.
“We have handled more than 2,500 overdoses in our injection room in the last 11 years and not one user has died. All the people who have died of drug use in Frankfurt have died on the streets outside of our opening hours. We are changing half a million syringes each year and helping many people who have never had contact with any drug help service before.
“The public is supporting us because they are pleased that someone is regulating and taking care of these people. The public are more pragmatic than we expected.”
Charlie Lloyd, a member of the working group and principal research manager for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said: “It is a shame the government has not considered our advice for longer. It seems that everybody but the government is willing to contemplate it.
“However, even if the government won’t support the scheme, it can still be piloted. If the police force and the local authorities are supportive and work together then we can carefully plan a pilot scheme.
“The aim would be to set it up in communities where there are already needle exchanges,” said Lloyd.
Drug consumption rooms were first proposed for the UK in 2002 by the home affairs select committee but were ruled out by the government, partly due to a lack of evidence. This week’s report contains new evidence from around the world, according to its authors. However Home Office minister Vernon Coaker said this week that the government position remained the same.
Coaker said in response to the new report: “The government’s message on drugs is clear: we will not tolerate those who deal in drugs in our communities.
“We are of course aware of this report but believe the reasons for rejecting it in 2002 are as valid today – namely, the risk of an increase in localised dealing, antisocial behaviour and acquisitive crime.”
The report highlights how drug consumption rooms abroad have discouraged antisocial behaviour. Out of the 3,782 users interviewed at the Sydney drugs consumption room cited in the study, 42 per cent said they would have injected in public had there not have been one.
The effect a consumption room has on drugs-related litter can be seen in a study of the Vancouver scheme in the report. A daily average of 11 discarded syringes were found before the opening of the drugs consumption room. This dropped to five after its opening.
The authors argue that drug use is prevalent among homeless people, and therefore without drug consumption rooms, users have little option but to inject in dirty environments, such as toilets, streets and parks. This is not only dangerous for the users but the discarded needles are a nuisance and health risk for everyone else, finds the report.
UK drugs charities also support the scheme. Turning Point chief executive, Lord Victor Adebowale said: “We welcome this report which makes an overwhelming case for the pilot of drug consumption rooms.
“It is clear this programme could have real benefits – not only for those chaotic drug users who are furthest away from engaging with treatment services, but also for the community as a whole.
“If drug treatment rooms prevent used needles being left in our parks or near schools, we would all benefit.
“Chaotic drug use brings significant health and social harm to the individual, as well as their community and drug consumption rooms would provide a valuable bridge into treatment. Drug consumption rooms would provide chaotic users with a safe, supervised and clean environment which may prove to be the first step in their recovery.”
The report was chaired by Dame Ruth Runciman. She said: “While millions of drug injections have taken place in drug consumption rooms abroad, no one has died yet from an overdose. In short, lives could be saved.”