With a strong parliamentary majority and the UK out of the EU, the Conservative government should now be seeking to focus more on domestic issues to help the most vulnerable in society. Drug misuse is one such issue. It can be dangerous and debilitating, and current legislation is failing on a massive scale to deal with it.
Last year, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs published a report which found that the homeless are more at risk of problematic drug use. It showed a higher rate of drug-related deaths, infections among those injecting drugs, and degradation of health. Homeless people are overrepresented in cases of serious bacterial infection from drug use. Substance abuse, while a problem in its own right, becomes especially complicated when combined with homelessness, hindering recovery further.
On the streets of Nottingham’s city centre, it is common to see homeless people using or begging for drugs. Business owners have often had to deal with needles tossed in front of shop doorways, as noted by the city’s rough sleeping coordinators. It is distressing to see when there is so little that we can do to help. Drug addiction is a complex issue and forcing people into rehab is not an option.
The number of crack cocaine and opiate users in Nottingham is the highest in the East Midlands and is becoming more prevalent than ever before. Public Health England issued a report on the number of cocaine and opiate users across each region of England, finding that of the county’s 4,292 users, Nottingham accounted for 2,71. Other cities around the country are seeing similar trends.
Drugs consumed on the streets are often unsafe. They are not regulated and knowing what they contain and where they come from can be difficult. The purity of drugs like heroin is increasing and the prices are going down. Access is becoming easier than ever.
Priti Patel’s outdated hardline punitive measures for drug offences don’t address the root of the problem and will fail to deter users from purchasing and consuming drugs. This approach merely isolates users further than our drug laws already do.
It is high time we moved to a more evidence-based approach for the many parts of the UK struggling to combat issues of dangerous drug use. A small step in the right direction is safe consumption rooms.
Drug consumption rooms allow users to take drugs in a safe and controlled environment with medical supervision. Sterile needles are offered to reduce the risk of infection, counselling is usually available before and after the drugs are administered, medical professionals can help to prevent overdoses and if overdosing does occur, emergency care is on hand. Furthermore, users are able to find out more about the services available to them in helping overcome addiction and the problems that come with it.
Globally, 11 countries have officially introduced drug consumption rooms already. They include Australia, Spain, France and Canada. Over 100 sites are operational, and the results have been incredibly positive for harm-reduction.
The home secretary has made one valid point in this regard, however; drugs can be corrosive to communities. Safe consumption rooms rather than harsher sentencing laws are likely to be far more effective in positively impacting people within these communities.
By providing a safe space for users, drug usage in public can be reduced, along with the number of discarded (and potentially infected) needles littering the streets. In 2004, Barcelona saw a fourfold reduction in the number of disposed syringes being collected in vicinities with safer injecting facilities.
Furthermore, the consumption room trials in other countries showed no evidence of an increase in usage or drug-related crime, as some might expect a facilitation of drug use would encourage.
Consumption rooms will not provide a definitive solution to all of the drug problems we see in the UK. There will still be a profitable black market lurking beneath the surface. The current punitive approach is broken and in desperate need of reform. Drastic policy changes are likely to be a long way off with a Conservative government wanting to maintain ‘law and order’ party image, particularly when it comes to harder drugs like heroin.
What these rooms do best is alleviate some of the short-term problems which arise from drug addiction in a humane manner. It encourages users to stay as safe as possible and to seek the help that they need. Fear has proven to be an ineffective deterrent. It’s time to show compassion.
One must remain hopeful that the Home Office will soon realise the necessity of consumption rooms and amend the Misuse of Drugs Act to allow these life-saving centres to be there for those who need them.