Fighting the Stigma: Safe Injection Sites In the UK and Europe


By Joe Chivers

When we talk about drug decriminalization, the first drug that comes to mind is marijuana, but how does decriminalization affect intravenous drug users (IDUs)? IDUs are largely regarded by the public as the lowest form of drug user, a junkie, who scatters used needles haphazardly in their wake. Destigmatization of IDUs, and particularly heroin users, many of whom become addicted due to past trauma or mental illness, is a keystone of the fight against the drug war. Two cities in the UK: Glasgow and Durham, have recently planned to create the first safe injection sites, often called shooting galleries, in the country. Durham’s stance is particularly noteworthy, with the city’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Ron Hogg, relaxing the local stance on marijuana due to a lack of belief in the war on drugs.

The planned facilities would be the first of their kind in the UK, but they have existed in other European countries for many years. The sites, which supervise users and provide them with clean needles, give users a far safer experience. The first pioneering developments came in Switzerland during the 1980s, when injection rooms were introduced to try and guard against the spread of HIV, with prescription of heroin following in the 1990s. The injection centers also offered other services, including counselling, referral, and cheap produce. Testimonies to their success can be found amongst both former and current users. One, 55-year-old Evelyn, credits the program with saving her life. As of 2014, she injected 0.5g per day, but worked at a co-operative restaurant in Bern, and had regular contact with her family.

Harm reduction programs are relatively common in Europe, with several countries following Switzerland’s example. Safe injection sites can be found in cities and towns across Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. France has recently opened its first safe injection site, near Paris’ Gare Du Nord railway station, an area well-known for its drug dealing.

In addition to personal testimonies like Evelyn’s, there are reams of data which show facilities like these are well-worth their cost. In a monograph on harm reduction, the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), found the facilities provide a wide range of benefits. These include: improved knowledge of safe injection practices, increased use of sterile injecting equipment, and staff-reported improved behavior among users. Syringe sharing among users of the sites fell by 69%, and some evidence points towards a fall in drug-related deaths on the community level. There is “no evidence at all that consumption rooms contribute to increased morbidity or mortality risks amongst drug users.”

It looks as though safe injection sites will continue to spread across Europe, thanks to their effectiveness and fairly low running costs. If even the UK, which traditionally follows American drug policy almost to the letter, is attempting to build them, one has to wonder when U.S. states (beyond Washington) will attempt to adopt them. Amid the chaos which the opiate epidemic is wreaking across the United States, providing medical supervision could see the number of tragic deaths cut tremendously. Unfortunately, it is likely that, thanks to the drug war, we won’t see them spread anytime soon, and instead, we’ll see the deaths continue.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.