Helsinki May Open Finland’s First Drug Consumption Room

Finland’s rate of drug-related deaths is more than double the EU average, and over 14,000 Finns are considered to be “high-risk opioid users”.

Helsinki City Council has approved an initiative to consider the introduction of a safer drug consumption room (DCR) in the city, which would be Finland’s first.

The initiative was proposed by Green Party city councillor, Dr. Kati Juva, to reduce drug overdoses and the transmission of infectious diseases, to provide support and treatment to those in need, and to reduce potentially dangerous drug-related behaviour in Helsinki. Dr. Juva’s proposal was supported by most of her fellow councillors and was passed on 7 November, meaning the Council will now research the details of the proposition in-depth prior to coming to a final decision.

Drug consumption rooms are harm reduction facilities which allow people to self-administer drugs in a safe and hygienic environment. They reduce disease transmission and risky injecting behaviour as all drug use takes place under the supervision of trained medical staff, and service users are provided with sterile equipment. The presence of staff also prevents deadly overdoses from taking places; across the ten countries operating DCRs around the world, there has never been a fatal drug overdose within such a facility.

European DCRs, 2017 (Source: EMCDDA - PDF)

Drug-related deaths remain a major issue in Finland. In 2015, the drug-induced mortality rate among adults (aged 15-64) was 53 per million, more than double the European Union average of 22 per million. An estimated 14,000 Finns are considered to be "high-risk opioid users" in the country, equivalent to around 0.4 per cent of the adult population.

Currently, simple drug possession in Finland can be punished by a fine or up two years imprisonment, meaning that DCR service users could face prosecution. Nonetheless, Dr. Juva remains hopeful; in a Facebook post, she that “fortunately, the police are also aware of the benefits of such facilities”, so it is “is entirely possible” that they would agree to not raid a legally-established DCR.

However, Tuukka Tammi, a senior researcher at Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare, told TalkingDrugs that it remains unclear if a legislative change would be necessary prior to a DCR opening, “or if they could operate within the current law that criminalises drug use and possession”. Nonetheless, Tammi said that he welcomed Dr. Kari’s DCR initiative, and that he was surprised at its “wide support”. He also offered his institution’s support to the Council; “we at the National Institute for Health and Welfare are ready and willing to make a follow-up study on the pilot DCR”.

Dr. Juva said that “a significant proportion of the disadvantages” of current public drug use are faced by people who do not use drugs, as some people who use drugs discard of their used injecting equipment in public toilets, playgrounds, and other public spaces. DCRs would mitigate this problem by providing places for people to safely dispose of their needles on-site.

“‘A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench’,” Dr. Juva said, using the words of a Biblical allegory, “The use of rooms is good for a humane drug policy”.

Legal DCRs currently exist in ten countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland.

As TalkingDrugs has reported, the Greek health ministry intends to permit the opening of DCRs in Athens, and is currently preparing a legislative amendment for this purpose. Ireland also has set out plans to open a DCR in Dublin. Recent attempts to open DCRs in the UK and the US state of California have been blocked by their respective governments.

The Helsinki City Council will make a decision on the opening of the DCR after completing research into its benefits and viability.

Learn about how drug consumption rooms benefit people who do not use drugs here.