Consumption rooms could be part of solution to our drugs problem

As a serving police officer for 30 years, I saw first hand the devastation that drug use can cause.

Class A drugs like heroin and crack cocaine not only ruin the lives of addicts and those around them, they are also responsible for a lot of other crimes. If you consider that it costs up to £30,000 a year to fund a drug habit, and that stolen goods generally only fetch around a third of their normal value, that amounts to a lot of burglary and shoplifting.

This is not a new problem. Illegal drug use, and the social ills associated with it, has been around for a very long time. However, anyone who looks at where British drugs policy is currently taking us would be right to be alarmed. This is particularly the case if you look at the worst drug related harm possible – drug related deaths.

The UK saw more than 3,500 drug related deaths in 2017 – twice the number of people killed in car accidents.

In that same year there were 934 drug related deaths in Scotland – or 260 for every million people aged 15-64. This is by far the highest in Europe, and almost one third of these deaths were in the Glasgow area – where early data shows another a 43% rise in deaths from drug overdoses in the first 10 months of last year.

We don’t have a problem anywhere near that scale here in Dorset, although we still lose too many people to drug death.

We also have seen county lines drugs gangs come here from big cities like London and Manchester in recent years, taking advantage of vulnerable people in the process. Serious drug users are very much their target market, and the extent of what they are prepared to do to reach that market tells you everything you need to know about how lucrative this damaging trade can be.

Successive governments’ attempts to ‘police’ our way out of the drug problem have failed, and our policies now lag far behind those of other countries.

I was one of a number of Police and Crime Commissioners who recently wrote to the Home Secretary suggesting a change of direction with the introduction of a policy that has proven successful in other parts of the world – from Vancouver to Sydney.

We would like to see trials of supervised drug consumption rooms (DCRs) being established in areas where local authorities, police services and health authorities have determined they would be in the best interest of their communities.

DCRs are facilities that provide people with drug addiction with a safe place to consume their supply using sterilised equipment and with medical help and advice. These facilities already have an international track record in reducing the number of overdose deaths.

Critics who are alarmed by this idea suggest it will encourage and therefore increase the use of illegal drugs, but all the evidence says this is not the case. In the short term, drug addicts will continue to buy the same amount of drugs with or without access to a DCR, but in the long term these centres actually contribute to a reduction in the size of the illegal drugs market.

This is because these facilities put serious drug users – people who have traditionally been considered as ‘hard to reach’ by the authorities – into direct contact with the treatment services they need to start the long and difficult process of withdrawal.

A review of DCRs by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said:  “These services facilitate rather than delay treatment entry and do not result in higher rates of local drug related crime.”

And although concerns have been raised that the police would not be able to deal with problems caused by setting up DCRs in their patch, senior officers around the country have said they have the right powers and knowledge to tackle drug dealing and manage drug possession offences in a way that would enable these facilities to operate properly.

In other respects, we have woken up to the fact that people will continue to take drugs, and rather than burying our heads in the sand we need to take a much more pragmatic approach to managing the issue.

The government has recently done this through allowing police forces and local authorities to decide whether to allow drug safety testing at festivals or town centres – if they believe this intervention could save lives. The licensing of a drug checking service pilot in Weston Super Mare run by Addaction is one such example.

However, if a drug user goes to one of these testing facilities and finds his supply is particularly potent and carries a high risk of overdose, what would be better - for him to then go back to his bedsit and use it anyway? Or, for a nurse to direct him to a clinical space, with medical supervision, drugs on hand which could reverse an overdose, and an opportunity to encourage him to start treatment?

We need to recognise that the way we’ve been trying to tackle drug use for decades has not worked. DCRs may well be an important part of the solution, and I intend to continue to lobby for a pilot in one of our conurbation areas.  

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