In a landmark move for drug policy reform in Northern Ireland, Belfast’s City Council has passed a motion backing the establishment of a Drug Consumption Room (DCR) in their capital city. This motion has been welcomed by advocacy groups, drug service providers, and the drug policy research community, who have long campaigned for enhanced harm reduction measures to support people who use drugs, needed in a city that has had some key harm reduction initiatives closed in the past.
Councillor Brian Smyth, who represents Lisnasharragh on the Belfast City Council, spoke to TalkingDrugs about the significance of this move: “This is a humanitarian issue. People in Belfast know that this is an escalating problem.”
The global evidence supporting the effectiveness of DCRs as a health intervention is clear. These centres, which allow people to consume drugs under the supervision of medically trained professionals, have been shown to reduce rates of overdose and provide access to healthcare and auxiliary services for an often times marginalized community. Over 200 DCRs currently operate in 16 countries, including Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Portugal, and the US, with positive outcomes documented in relation to reductions in the transmission of blood borne infection, drug-related litter and public injecting. Additionally, they have also proven to be cost-effective, offering the potential to reduce pressure on Belfast’s already stretched emergency services.
Dr Gillian Shorter, Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast and co-director of the QUB Drug and Alcohol Research Network, praised the political determination of the Green Party in supporting the establishment of an OPC.
“There’s been a lot of hard work behind the scenes, particularly from the Green Party. It’s always been something that they have championed and been behind,” she said.
Shorter highlighted the importance of a DCR in Northern Ireland, where drug-related deaths have doubled in the past decade, particularly among young people in Belfast. “It’s especially important in Belfast because we have extraordinary numbers of young people dying in the ages of 25 to 39. The reason why this age is important is not only because we are losing young people so early in life, but also these were the individuals who were promised so much as part of the Good Friday generation. We promised people a lot of things in the Good Friday Agreement about prosperity and futures that would not have happened without the ceasefire following the troubles.”
With a clear and visible need for better services to support people using drugs in Belfast, the motion to establish a DCR was approved by Belfast city council without objections. However, there is still a long way to go in its creation. While local support is a first step towards change, the decision to implement a DCR ultimately rests on the UK government.
“I hope there will be one, but I think it boils down to Westminster now. This [Conservative] government hasn’t seemed interested in doing that [backing the implementation of OPCs]. I’m hoping it may change with a Labour government getting in,” Councillor Smyth explained to TalkingDrugs.
The push for DCRs appears to be gaining momentum UK-wide. In June 2020, in the midst of record rates of drug-related deaths in Scotland, Peter Krykant engaged in direct action, setting up an unsanctioned DCR in Glasgow’s city centre. The subsequent evaluation, conducted by Dr Shorter, documented and demonstrated the ability of DCRs to save lives, reduce street-based drug use and operate successfully in a UK context. Virtually all British public health bodies including the Faculty of Public Health, the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee on Drug Policy, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce, the Royal College of Physicians, among others, have all called for their implementation.
With this momentum in mind, it is clear that successful reform in Northern Ireland could tip the scale in favour of much needed drug policy reform which has been stunted by an ideologically oppositional government in Westminster. Northern Ireland now joins Scotland in formally calling for new and better interventions to address drug-related deaths and support people who use drugs.
The concrete call for the establishment of a DCR from Belfast’s political leaders is unprecedented in Northern Ireland. As we continue to battle climbing rates of preventable drug-related death, it is essential that political leaders UK-wide continue to push for the implementation of evidence-based harm reduction measures that save and support people who use drugs.
The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. As stressed by Dr. Shorter, “every moment we delay costs lives.”