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Another Belfast Needle Exchange Depository Closes Despite an Increase in Demand

The imminent closure of another Needle and Syringe Exchange Scheme (NSES) depository in Belfast brings the number of exchange centres in Northern Ireland down to 20, despite a 13% increase in demand for the service compared to last year. The inflammatory remarks of a DUP MLA and protests from community members over paraphernalia littering signals the hardline response of the city toward its ‘worsening drugs problem.’

Christopher Stalford, the DUP MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for South Belfast refused to apologise last month for his referring to people who use drugs as “junkies and smackheads” on social media. The MLA defended his comments as the result of “10 years of frustration” “fighting” for residents of his constituency. 

Stalford’s remarks came after the announcement that a Needle and Syringe Exchange Scheme depository in the Botanic area of South Belfast is to be closed before the end of August. The site, which is part of the Northern Irish NSES, (with 21 branches set up across Northern Ireland and visited 34,000 times between April 2018 and March 2019) will close its doors after 23 years this August. The scheme is to be phased out after residents demanded its closure and “peacefully protested” outside the premises.

The Needle and Syringe Exchange Scheme at the J. McGregor Chemist in Botanic is the next domino to fall in Belfast, following the actions of Boots pharmacy, who pulled its NSES service at its Donegall Place branch last October due to “increased incidents of anti-social behaviour by users of (the) service.” 

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Botanic saw an influx of people who inject drugs when compared to Belfast’s city centre. One reason for this may have been due to the fact that restaurants and pubs in the city centre were closed during lockdown, while many food shops and eateries in Botanic remained open. This, in turn, attracted beggars who often rely on areas with heavy footfall such as restaurants and bars. Additionally, Botanic borders the Holylands, a residential area in inner-south Belfast where heroin use has been relatively high for many decades. Paramilitary control during the Troubles was relatively minor there in comparison to other areas of Belfast, and so drug users tended to live there to stay safe. To this day the number of people who use drugs living in the Holylands remains relatively high when compared with other areas of the city. 

MLA Christopher Stalford, appearing on BBC Northern Ireland's Evening Extra radio program on the 16th of July stated that private property in his constituency had been littered with paraphernalia disposed of by users of the NSES service in Botanic, and that his community had now “had enough.” He further justified his discriminatory remarks by suggesting that the language he had used on social networking sites reflected the language “used every day” by his constituents, failing to recognise that people who use drugs are also within members of his constituency.

Needle Exchange Schemes Save Lives and Benefit the Entire Community


In February, new figures showed that there had been a 13% increase in the number of visits to NSES sites across Northern Ireland. The year before last saw just a 3% increase from 2016/17. Demand, undoubtedly, has surged, and not just in the capital. 62% of visits took place in Belfast, but the Southern Trust, which saw the overall lowest number of visits in 2018/19, saw the greatest percentage increase in visits at 33%.

Michael Owen, the Public Health Agency’s (PHA) regional lead for drugs and alcohol said to the BBC that "making it harder for people to get clean needles would mean they are far more likely to share needles," and that there was a “need for the scheme” which would “benefit the entire community.”  Indeed, such spaces lower the risk of people contracting bloodborne viruses such as Hepatitis B and C and HIV within the drug-injecting community, and this in turn lessens the risk posed to the wider population by these viruses. 

The short-sightedness of the decision to close the NSES depository in Botanic is obvious. This decision will put even greater strain on other centres in Belfast and their surrounding communities. If littering was the chief apprehension that community members and Christopher Stalford had for the NSES centre in Botanic, might there not have been a way to confront this singular issue without suddenly shutting down the depository? Now, there must come a unified and compassionate response to the increasing number of people who are injecting drugs in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, who rely on these services to stay safe. 


Closing Down Needle Exchange Schemes Won’t Stop Littering


The number of NSES services in Belfast had increased as demand in Northern Ireland grew rapidly over the past five years. This rise in demand came as “a result of a change in how (heroin) was sold,” according to NI Healthcare. Before 2014, most heroin on the market in Northern Ireland was sold by so-called “user-dealers”: people who sold heroin to pay for their own habit. Around five years ago, this changed as “wholly ‘dealing from profit’ operations, which were highly organized,” and which offered “a more stable availability of heroin,” took customers away from “user-dealers.” Since then, as the heroin market has become more stable, heroin use in Northern Ireland has increased. 

The imminent closure of the clean needle exchange in Botanic will therefore put greater pressure on the remaining – already oversubscribed – NSES services in Belfast. The closure of the Botanic NSES depository will not help to slow the increase in the number of people who struggle with drug dependency in Belfast, it will only serve to ‘kick the can down the road’. Instead of opting to close the NSES centre in Botanic, which ultimately benefits the wider community, not just those utilising the service, effort should be put into improving the NSES, and tackling the specific issue of paraphernalia littering. 

There are several possible solutions to the issue of drug-related littering beyond simply shutting down clean needle exchanges. These range from increasing funding for street cleaning, to implementing safe bins for used paraphernalia, to the introduction of Drug Consumption Rooms and greater funding for safe housing and private spaces so that people do not have to consume drugs in public spaces. All of this, in addition to ensuring that people visiting NSES clinics receive only the equipment that is needed for their purposes, would certainly aid concerned parties in tackling the issue of paraphernalia littering in Belfast. 

Extern advocate for the need for the latter facility to be introduced in Belfast. They reason that a consumption room would reduce paraphernalia littering, remove the “unsightliness of street-based injecting,” and “prevent disease transmission and fatal overdoses, while connecting [people] with healthcare professionals.” 

The inflammatory rhetoric of Christopher Stalford demonises and ‘otherises’ people who use drugs, in line with the discriminatory spirit of the ongoing ‘War on Drugs.’ People who use injectable drugs such as heroin have often suffered from traumatic events, or have ongoing mental health problems, and should be treated thusly, compassionately, least of all by community leaders such as Stalford. Vilifying people who use drugs, and those who rely on clean needle exchanges to use drugs safely, exacerbates divisions and fails to confront the causes that are leading to an increase in the number of people using injectable drugs.  

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