Drug consumption rooms provide person-based approach to drug use

Recently, Copenhagen has become the latest city to recognize the need for a drastic change in the handling of drug problems and to test a new approach: the implementation of drug consumption rooms. Drug consumption rooms are essentially “safe houses” where drug users are able to come without fear of being arrested for possession. These houses contain stalls where users may inject their own drugs, with the facility providing sterile equipment such as needles and syringes.

Copenhagen’s program began one year ago after more than a decade of activists lobbying for such a program. The consumption room has been set up where drug dealings and street use is heavily concentrated, and police feel that the streets are safer for it—less waste such as discarded needles litter the streets, and the amount of fights between users has gone down. These consumption rooms have proved highly effective in addressing a number of dangers posed to users. Each are staffed with nurses and doctors who are specifically trained to give attention to overdoses, and as a result, there have been no deaths in Copenhagen’s facility. Additionally, the availability of clean utensils is essential in the stopping of the spread of viruses such as HIV. 

However, in addition to protecting the health of users, the greatest benefits of the safe houses are their unique ability to provide personal attention and assistance to users that they would otherwise lack. Conviction and jail time will not aid a drug-user in overcoming dependency; drug users must be engaged in dialogue. The dialogue which the safe rooms allow users and medical professionals to have is an essential step in helping the users to overcome dependency. With these rooms, marginalized groups that may otherwise have been difficult or even impossible to approach are suddenly reachable.

The impact of the safe houses are personal to every user: A young woman in Copenhagen who has been a drug user for nearly a decade has told of how she now feels safe within the consumption rooms rather than ashamed and vulnerable on the streets. Other Copenhagen residents believe that the safe houses have helped the people of the community; lives have been saved by users having the ability to receive ready medical attention.

Copenhagen is only the most recent in a growing list of cities to attest to the effectiveness of safe consumption rooms—in Europe alone there are over 90 consumption facilities, including several trials in the United Kingdom. In the wake of success stories such as Copenhagen’s, a growing number of politicians in the UK have voiced support for safe houses. Durham PCC Ron Hogg has recently called for a drug policy reform that includes the installation of consumption rooms, taking his plan a step further even than Copenhagen by stating he wishes to actually provide the users with drugs, in order that they receive uncontaminated substances. Brighton will be the next city in the UK to consider implementation, with a discussion upcoming shortly in early 2014.

In order to achieve drug policy reform, the mindset of the public must be changed in how it views drug users. Safe consumption rooms  are a person-oriented approach to dealing with drug issues that maintains the goal not of simply quickly putting people into jail and away from the rest of society after drug convictions, but instead cares for the members of society who have been marginalized and require assistance. In a situation where people are reduced to problems to be dealt with, safe rooms restore humanity to the situation. When considering drug policies, governments must recognize that traditional methods are ineffective both in winning the “drug war,” and equally importantly in helping the individuals caught by dependency. Successful models such as Copenhagen should be studied and taken into consideration in future decisions, hopefully in order to lead to a more humane and effective approach.