Despite the chaos of Brexit, Westminster support for drug consumption rooms has hit an all time high and, for the first time, the call for reform has come from a centre right think tank, the Adam Smith Institute.
Drug consumption rooms (DCRs) operate in 60 cities worldwide and act as professionally supervised healthcare facilities where people can use drugs in safe conditions. Inside a DCR, medically trained staff reverse overdoses, provide injecting equipment and refer people into key services such as drug treatment, counselling, legal advice and housing services. There has never been a death from an overdose in a drug consumption room.
DCRs are mostly used by people who inject heroin and in the UK deaths among this cohort are the highest they’ve ever been.
Those on the left have historically been the loudest advocates for DCRs, making the case that they are a compassionate, life-saving intervention that can significantly improve the health of society’s most vulnerable people. Last month, Labour’s drugs minister announced that the party would back pilots of drug consumption rooms.
Until the Adam Smith Institute’s intervention, the centre-right has been an absent voice or a vocal opponent on DCRs.
Social conservatives are greatly concerned about the devastating impact that addiction can have on communities, families and individuals and have been wary of supporting any policy which is seen to condone drug use. The current Home Office position on DCRs is that: “There is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms in the UK and we have no plans to introduce them. This Government’s position on drugs remains clear – we must prevent drug use in our communities and support people dependent on drugs through treatment and recovery.”
But drug consumption rooms do support treatment and recovery. They engage and build relationships with people who are outside of drug treatment by providing easy access to services that best meet their needs. Once those trusted relationships have been built and service users have found greater safety and stability, conversations about recovery can then be had.
DCRs are not a burden on communities as they reduce the impact of public drug scenes, by reducing drug-related litter and public injecting. As it stands, a person can obtain clean needles from a needle exchange but they are not allowed to inject on site, and for some people this means finding an alley, car park or canal pathway that will have to do. This is not good for the person who is injecting, who is at increased risk of infection and overdose, and nor is it good for the surrounding community who will be exposed to public drug scenes.
Drug consumption rooms bring order, not chaos.
For neoliberals, the Adam Smith Institute’s entry into the DCR arena should be treated as a rallying cry.
If people are going to use drugs, rather than standing in their way, the state should be helping them to use them in the safest possible way. We have seen this done with drug safety testing, a service run by The Loop which allows people to test the potency and purity of their drugs, with the aim of preventing overdoses and poisonings.
The Home Office has given the green light to drug safety testing and the same should be done for DCRs.
The Government’s opposition to DCRs has been a clear infringement on local decision-making. Glasgow was one of the first UK cities to declare its intention to open a DCR in response to a HIV outbreak and rising drug-related deaths, but the proposal was blocked by the Government.
Cities across the UK have followed in Glasgow’s footsteps but have so far been immobilised by the Home Office’s position.
Local authorities should be free to decide what services would best meet the needs of their local populations and Westminster should not be standing in the way of innovation at a time when drug-related deaths are at a record high.
DCRs cross the political divide and wider support from the ideological right will be key for successful implementation. Doing so would no doubt create safer and more supportive communities up and down the UK.
Liz McCulloch is Director of Policy at Volteface. Tweets @Liz_McCll