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UK Legislators Make Impassioned Call for Drug Consumption Rooms, As Deaths Soar

Members of parliament from across the political spectrum have called on the UK government to allow the introduction of drug consumption rooms (DCRs), which save lives and reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

On January 17, at a Westminster Hall debate convened by MP Ronnie Cowan, a host of legislators made impassioned statements in favour of drug consumption rooms – facilities in which people can use illegal drugs in a safe environment, without risking prosecution, and in the presence of trained medical professionals. DCRs have been endorsed by the British Medical Association.

Cowan, of the Scottish National Party, initiated the debate by describing the urgent need for DCRs.

“Drug deaths due to overdose are increasing year on year in the United Kingdom. People have been taking drugs of various types for thousands of years. In the last 100 years or so, we have run a campaign to criminalise and persecute people who take certain categories of drugs”, he described, “Drug consumption rooms are part of the solution. […] Those facilities aim primarily to reduce the acute risk of disease transmission through unhygienic injecting, prevent drug-related overdose deaths and connect high-risk drug users with addiction treatment and other health and social services.”

Indeed, the provision of sterile equipment and a clean environment allow people to inject drugs without the risk of acquiring an infectious disease, such as HIV or Hepatitis C, and allow people to dispose of their used equipment – such as needles – in sanitary waste bins. The presence of health experts prevents deadly overdoses from taking place; DCRs exist in eight European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, and no one has ever died from an overdose in one.

Crispin Blunt MP, of the Conservative Party, joined Cowan’s praise for DCRs in reducing the harms of drug use. “Drug consumption rooms plainly, on the basis of evidence around the world, ought to be part of our attempt to treat people,” he insisted. “It is simply about the evidence. No one has died globally in a properly overseen drug consumption room, and yet in our country, 1,707 people died as a result of illicit heroin use in 2016.”

Alison Thewliss of the SNP referred to the support for DCRs voiced by Anyone’s Child, an international network of families affected by drug laws – often by the death of a loved one. “I have listened carefully to people who have lost family members, and they made it clear that drug consumption rooms would be a positive intervention," Thewliss said, "There has been not one single death in any drug consumption room anywhere.”

These figures are indicative of the urgency of this debate. The number of drug-related deaths reached a record high in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland in 2016. UK drug-related deaths accounted for a staggering 31 per cent of all drug-induced deaths in Europe in 2015 – more than any other European country. DCRs provide a venue for the harms of drug use, especially overdose deaths, to be reduced – and they also provide a vital opportunity for health professionals to make contact with marginalised groups, offering treatment and harm reduction advice.

Caroline Lucas MP, of the Green Party, briefly alluded to how DCRs can provide this important opportunity. “One of the big strengths of DCRs is their ability to reach people with drug addiction problems who are not otherwise known to the services. If we build relationships and trust with such people over time, we are much more likely to get them into services that can begin to address the reason for their addiction.”

Unfortunately for those who favour this harm reduction measure, MPs’ calls for a DCR were swiftly opposed at the end of the debate by drugs minister Victoria Atkins. Atkins claimed that there are "limits of the evidence" of DCRs, and suggested that MPs were exaggerating their international success – pointing to there being only one DCR in Spain, a Catalonia DCR operating for one hour per day. The debate ended before Atkins could be corrected, that there are in fact 13 DCRs operating across seven cities in Spain.

(Atkins has been criticised for hypocrisy in her approach to drugs. Drugs minister Atkins firmly opposes the regulation of cannabis, despite 45 acres of cannabis being grown for private interests on the premises of British Sugar, which is managed by Atkins' husband Paul Kenward)

The lack of support for DCRs from the drugs minister may hinder their implementation in the UK, but this does not block them entirely: legal change at the governmental level is not necessarily a prerequisite for the opening of a DCR.

Authorities in Glasgow hope to establish one this year, while councillors in Southampton are considering the introduction of such a facility to reduce the city’s drug litter and rising drug-related deaths. Under Section 5 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, “it [is not] lawful for a person to have a controlled drug in his possession” – meaning that someone accessing a DCR is at risk of arrest and prosecution. Similarly, staff managing a DCR would risk prosecution under Section 8 of this Act for permitting certain drug-related activities within their premises. However, Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables in any given region could choose to favour the positive health outcomes that DCRs bring, and choose not to arrest or prosecute people for drug possession offences – thereby creating an environment in which a DCR could be established without hindrance.

Proponents of DCRs argue that the soaring rate of drug-related deaths across the UK could be best tackled if Westminster approved these facilities, but – even if the government does not do so – it remains possible for DCRs to be established.

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