Drug consumption facilities: What are they and how can they be effective?

20th December 2021

In recent years, the prevalence of drug consumption facilities has been on the rise as policymakers and governments gradually take a more liberal and evidence-led approach to drugs. They are often adopted as part of a wider harm reduction strategy to help ensure the safety of recreational drug users.

It is undeniable that the use of illicit drugs continues – and even flourishes – despite ongoing prohibition. Therefore, advocates for the introduction of drug consumption facilities argue that the safety of drug users should be prioritised.

Illicit drug use – including both the use of illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription drugs – can carry a number of serious risks, such as infection and overdose.

What are Drug Consumption Facilities?

Typically these facilities provide drug users with sterile injecting equipment, counselling services before, during, and after drug consumption, as well as emergency care in case of overdose and primary medical care and referral to appropriate social healthcare and addiction treatment services.

Drug consumption facilities have been operating in Europe and the Americas for decades with the goal of reducing morbidity and mortality associated with drug use. The first drug consumption room was opened in Bern, Switzerland in 1986.

Since then, the facilities have cropped up around the world and have yielded some impressive results. However, the UK remains behind the curve when it comes to the introduction of such facilities.

In the UK, such facilities are gaining increasing attention – particularly after details of the government’s new 10-year drug strategy were unveiled. Earlier this month, Boris Johnson’s government announced a record investment of £780 million to rebuild the UK’s drug treatment system.

However, the maintenance of existing, and development of further facilities are not explicitly mentioned in the details of the new strategy – much to the dismay of senior doctors, public health specialists, drug experts and health charities.

How can they be effective?

Last year, the UK recorded a record number of opiates and cocaine-related deaths, with 5,900 people losing their lives. According to supporters of these facilities, such measures will help to reduce fatalities related to illegal drug use.

One such facility is Middlesbrough’s Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT) facility which provides drug users with supervised diamorphine injections. The aim of the scheme is to reduce reliance on street heroin and criminals to break the link between addiction and crime.

The HAT programme was launched in 2019 and was the first of its kind in the UK. Funding for the scheme was provided through Project Adder (Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recovery) – a scheme that was set up to combat drug misuse.

Drug consumption facilities: What are they and how can they be effective?

The BBC reported recently that participants in the programme had recorded a 60% reduction in criminal offences since initiating supervised diamorphine injections at the facility. According to figures reported by Teesside University, such a reduction could save the Ministry of Justice around £97,800.

Danny Ahmed, the programme’s clinical lead, said: “Patients are feeding back that this has been a complete lifeline to them, for the first time in their lives they feel a real sense of stability.

“They have found the routine of coming into our clinic and the routine of working around the administration of medication really beneficial.”

The scheme has also had a significant impact on street heroin use, with 80% of all tests taken for the drug within the group returning as negative.

In addition to supervised drug consumption facilities, the HAT programme also provides participants with psychosocial interventions Despite this service not being compulsory, every participant had to date engaged, with significant improvements in their psychological health reported.

An Uncertain Future…

Despite promising results – as demonstrated by Middlesborough’s HAT programme, the future of these facilities is far from certain.

Scores of organisations and individuals with a background in the health and drugs fields recently signed a statement calling on ministers to permit the creation of more of these facilities in a move that they believe would save lives.

The statement, which was coordinated by the Faculty of Public Health, reads: “Urgent action is needed to tackle the spiralling rates of drug deaths across the UK.

“Drug deaths are avoidable and it is unacceptable that we see evidence-based actions to prevent harm such as OPCs (Overdose Prevention Centres) go unutilised in the UK.”

Conservative MP and Chair of the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform, Crispin Blunt, also commented: “The international evidence is overwhelming that public health and public safety are advanced by the existence of these overdose prevention centres.

“There’s a significant reduction in the number of drug deaths, more people become engaged with drug treatment, crime falls, drug problems in an area become less visible – for example, there are fewer needles lying around – and the lives of users and people who live and work in areas that were previously plagued with the consequences of drug abuse are significantly improved.”

Nonetheless, it remains unlikely that the current government will back the broadening of such schemes. In a recent statement – reported by The Guardian, a government spokesperson commented: “We have no plans to introduce drug consumption rooms and anyone running them would be committing a range of offences, including possession of a controlled drug.”

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