Despite its revolutionary history, France is not known for being forward-thinking when it comes to drugs. The law does not distinguish between different illicit substances, and when the education minister suggested a couple of weeks ago that the country should discuss the possibility of decriminalising cannabis, the Prime Minister was quick to declare that no such debate would take place.
But recently the French government announced that safe injecting rooms (also known as Drug Consumption Rooms, or DCRs) could open by the end of the year – a welcome and progressive step. The health minister revealed that a number of French cities are ready to trial injecting rooms. Paris, where heroin use is growing, seems keen on the initiative. This measure would enable users to inject their illegally-obtained drugs in a safe environment where needles are clean, medical assistance is on hand and there is no fear of arrest.
The idea is that users who take advantage of the scheme will be much less likely to harm themselves, and the availability of clean needles will stop the spread of HIV. It is a sign that the French government is moving towards accepting the existence of drug use, as opposed to merely (and rather pointlessly) fighting for a drug-free society.
This policy was a promise made by François Hollande during his campaign for the Presidency in the spring, so many will be glad that he’s fulfilling his pledge. But it’s nevertheless a risky move: a poll in September showed that 55% of the French were against injecting rooms, whereas 45% were in favour. Hollande must be hoping that the scheme will bear fruit by the time of the next Presidential election.
And he has good reasons to believe that it will. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction maintains that DCRs have been shown to benefit drug users (by ensuring access to health care and treatment) and society (by reducing public drug use). The EMCDDA also found no evidence that the existence of injecting rooms encouraged drug use.
A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that injecting rooms do not increase acquisitive crime and that public disorder and drug-dealing are rare in the vicinity of the DCRs. It also noted that, in 20 years, only one user of injecting rooms has ever died, and that was from an allergic reaction to the drug, rather than an overdose. This strongly suggests that DCRs succeed in minimising the self-harm caused by drug use.
Currently 9 countries allow injecting rooms: Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Australia and Canada. There are more than 90 injecting rooms across the world. Vancouver has Canada’s only DCR, and that alone prevents more than 80 HIV infections per year and saves CDN $17.6 million in HIV-related medical care. We can be optimistic that the trials in France will be a great success, and if they are then perhaps more legislators across the world will see the wisdom in this simple idea.