Safe Drug Consumption Rooms (SDCR) – Barcelona

The number of drug related deaths in Scotland last year was 934. Deaths have been increasing every year and unless we take action that is only going to continue. The U.K. Government’s drug policy which is enshrined in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act is the problem. It has been proven that in the correct circumstances drugs don’t kill you. But by criminalising users we have driven them into the shadows of society and we have stigmatised those who are problematic users. It’s the gift that keeps on giving for organised crime. From kids being recruited to ‘county lines’ , users being manipulated to use different substances, needles being shared with the subsequent spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, social workers and support workers often powerless to intervene and law enforcement agencies constrained by the laws of the land. We have created the perfect environment for criminals to produce and supply while protecting their marketplace with escalating violence. The U.K. is not the first country to get it wrong but we have been slower than others to take action to rectify the situation. It’s a multi layered complicated problem and to address all the issues will require major changes but one solution that has been trialled in other countries are Safe Drug Consumption Rooms (SDCR). Glasgow City Council in conjunction with NHS GGC have been investigating the opening of such a facility but have been thwarted by the existing laws. Last year I visited facilities in Portugal where they have decriminalised drugs and adopted a health based approach to problematic users. Medical practitioners and law enforcement officers in Portugal are united in their support for SDCR. This year I took the opportunity while visiting Catalonia to speak at an Unconditional Basic Income conference to visit the SDCR in Barcelona but first I talked to the staff at the Public Health Agency of Catalonia. They emphasised the need to adopt a humane approach to problematic drug use. They have opened eleven SDCR in Catalonia. And nobody is imprisoned for possession of drugs for personal use. They estimate that to be about one week’s worth of supply. Their attitude is that SDCR are part of the primary care package that is available to all citizens, including immigrants, legal or illegal. I visited three SDCR under the supervision of Xavier Major. The first is part of a health centre in the middle of a housing scheme with a large gypsy population. Many people were there to visit their own GP practice with the usual ailments. The others fell into one of three categories. First there are homeless people and the centre offers clean clothes, showers and a social worker along with kindness and caring. The second category are people who are injecting but don’t want to engage with the social services. They are provided with needles, wipes, a small tray to mix their drugs and condoms. When needles and condoms are provided the risk of transmitting or catching HIV, Hepatitis C or any other blood born virus is greatly reduced. Of the 180,000 needles handed out 110,000 are returned safely after use. The third category are those injecting drugs that are happy to use the SDCR. The same materials are provided but there is a greater opportunity to talk with the users and build a care package for them. The needles and wipes do not leave the room and therefore can’t contaminate the surrounding area. Last year there were 86,000 consumptions on site and 136 overdoses. Due to their adoption of a naloxone programme, nobody died. I was heartened to hear that the programme came about after input from Kirsten Horsburgh at the Scottish Drugs Forum. It takes eleven members of staff to run this facility and it is open from 10am to 8pm and the needle exchange is open until midnight. I was surprised to see that across the road was a primary school and behind that a police station but here in Barcelona the community accept problematic drug users as a health issue and that is reflected in their approach. The second SDCR I visited was a smaller version of the first but it has been integrated into a psychiatric hospital and is run by psychiatrists. And the last was the mobile unit. It is bright yellow and parks up in specific areas at the same time each day. It reminded me of a smaller version of the mobile blood donation units we have. All three units were staffed by marvellous people who treat their clients with care and compassion. They save lives and help put them back together again. It’s time we changed the law in the U.K. to allow access to such facilities. People are dying waiting.