Drug rooms: Admirers eye Copenhagen model

  • 30 October 2013
  • From the section Europe
Image caption The drug rooms offer a clean and safe environment for addicts

As a senior police official in northern England calls for safe rooms for the injection of hard drugs, attention has focused on similar projects around Europe.

County Durham's Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg points to an experiment in Copenhagen, which Danish police say has saved lives and helped clean up drug-ridden districts.

The harsh Danish winter has yet to set in but Louise Hultman has just pulled on a thick, woolly hat.

Image caption Louise Hultman says she feels safer injecting at the drug rooms

"I haven't washed my hair for days, it looks horrible," she says. "Life is difficult when every moment is about getting your next fix."

The 23-year-old has been taking hard drugs since she was 15 and says she steals to fund her addiction to heroin and cocaine.

But these days she injects inside one of Copenhagen's so-called drug consumption rooms, where she can access sterile needles and get help from nurses if anything goes wrong.

Addicts shoot up from inside individual booths spread along a spotless metal bench.

They bring their own drugs, which remain illegal in Denmark, but police in this neighbourhood, Vesterbro, no longer prosecute them for possession.

"I feel ashamed when I shoot up on the streets. If somebody passes by, they should not see my problem," says Louise, her eyes glazed following her most recent drug dose.

"So it's great we have somewhere to go now. And I feel safer here," she adds.

A clean environment

Copenhagen is home to the biggest, most open drug scene in Scandinavia, with up to 8,000 users concentrated in a 2.5km radius.

The capital's first drug consumption room launched a year ago, following a change in national legislation. It is funded by the city council, which spent more than a decade lobbying the government for permission to launch the project.

A second room opened in August 2013 and a third is planned for Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city.

"We are providing a clean environment for long-term addicts and we have found that they are now much more likely to access other health services in the area," says Ivan Christensen, who manages the drug rooms in Copenhagen.

He says it is impossible to know how many lives have been saved by the project, but there has not been a single death on the premises, despite more than 100 overdoses.

"Two of my best friends died this year because they weren't near a room like this," says Ms Hultman.

Safer streets

Vesterbro is the city's former meat-packing area and is now its red light district. The largest drug room is tucked behind a homeless shelter scrawled with graffiti and opposite a bar boasting to be one of the world's best strip clubs.

But like Hackney in east London or Berlin's formerly communist Mitte, this neighbourhood has quickly become a hub for young creative people and some of the Danish capital's hippest bars.

Police believe the drug consumption rooms are crucial to help clean up the area as it becomes increasingly gentrified.

They say the amount of drug-related litter on the cobbled streets has reduced tenfold over the past year, there are fewer street fights between addicts and there has been a drop in burglaries in the area.

"You have to find new ways to deal with drug addicts. You can't succeed by putting them into jail," argues Deputy Chief Superintendent Kaj Majlund.

"You have to have a dialogue with these junkies and get them into the drug rooms so they can get help."

Domino effect

Denmark is not the first country to launch drug consumption rooms. Switzerland pioneered the idea in the 1980s and since then others have opened in Germany, Spain, Norway, Canada and Australia.

Trials have also taken place in three parts of the UK: London, Brighton and County Durham. Brighton City Council will vote on whether to introduce a permanent project in 2014.

Commissioner Ron Hogg in County Durham wants his region to go even further, supplying "safe heroin" for addicts rather than make them bring their own.

Deputy Chief Superintendent Kaj Majlund says he is happy to pass on his number if other places want advice.

"I would say try it, try it, try it and you will see that it helps," he smiles.

Conservative critics

But not everyone is convinced by the concept.

"Yes the addicts are no longer out on the streets confronting tourists or children," says Peter Buurskov, who runs a hotel a few streets away from the main drug district.

"On the other hand these rooms keep people in the system because they are surrounded by other addicts."

Media captionKais Nane, drug user: ''You get needles, you get everything''

It is this kind of voter that the city's opposition Conservative party leader, Rasmus Jarlov, is hoping to attract when he stands in mayoral elections next month.

He worries that in the longer term consumption rooms will increase drug dealing in the area and encourage more people to shoot up.

"We all want to help the drug addicts of Copenhagen but we think that maybe we should use the resources on getting them out of drugs instead of providing facilities where they continue to take drugs and a zone where police cannot enforce the drug laws," he argues.

The road home

Back at the consumption room in Vesterbro, manager Ivan Christensen stresses that his staff are developing a rapport with long-term users who previously had no access to support services for addicts and says he has noticed a "growing interest" in rehabilitation programmes.

Ms Hultman is amongst those on the waiting list; she is hoping to get a place in Sweden, where her family lives.

But other addicts say that they will continue to take drugs, no matter how much time or money is spent on programmes designed to help them.

"I don't have the balls to get into rehab," says Fransesco Raccio, 37, who started using when he was at boarding school.

"It's very hard, it takes a lot of courage, you have to be 100% sure and you have to do it for yourself and not for anybody else. I tried that once and it didn't work."

"I understand the critics, but in the end if people want to do drugs they will do drugs. Why not help us with these rooms, which are a better place for us?"

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