The UK’s first mobile drug consumption room is to open up in Bristol on Thursday (December 2).
The people behind the drug consumption space – a converted minibus – call it an Overdose Prevention Centre and say it provides hygienic spaces where, instead of injecting in the street, people use their drugs while supervised by staff trained to treat any overdose.
The staff of the OPC provide sterile needles, basic healthcare and can refer people to drug treatment and other services.
The Overdose Prevention Centre has previously been in Glasgow for most of 2021, where its founder Peter Krykant said he and its staff helped supervise more than 1,000 injections by people using illegal drugs, and treated multiple overdoses.
The mobile drug consumption van is being launched in front of City Hall on College Green, before being set up initially at a location just off Stokes Croft, near the Bristol Drugs Project in Brunswick Square.
The launch on College Green will also be accompanied by the unveiling of a memorial to remember people who have died as a result of drugs, which is led by bereaved families from the Anyone’s Child campaign, whose members are backing the OPC van project run by an organisation called Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
According to the most recent figures from Bristol’s health and council authorities, there are almost 5,000 active users of crack and heroin in Bristol – making it the second highest drug dependent city in England.
Bristol also saw almost double the rate of drug-related deaths than the national average in the past two years. In 2019, there were 41 drug-related deaths, and again 38 in 2020 – that’s a rate of 8.9 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of five.
Is it legal?
Some kind of drug consumption room or space – called an Overdose Prevention Centre by those bringing this one to Bristol – is a fairly common sight in many European cities and in other parts of the world – there are more than 150 similar projects operating around the world.
“There is consistent evidence they are effective in reducing harms, and that they give local police a mechanism to address street injection drug use in a way that promotes public safety,” said Martin Powell, of the Bristol-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
“With the agreement of local police, Bristol can, and should, open one now – with or without Government permission,” he added.
The question around the legality of the Overdose Prevention Centre is complicated. When it was running in Glasgow, the police often monitored it, and the project’s founder Peter Krykant was arrested and charged by local police there after he allegedly obstructed police officers’ attempts to enter the van to search three people who had gone inside.
What does the local MP say?
Having a safe – or safer – space for drug users to take their drugs has long been an idea championed by political leaders in Bristol.
Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire first called for drug consumption rooms or spaces to be allowed by the Government and for Bristol to have one.
In 2017, she told Parliament she supported the idea, after the issue was highlighted by the BBC series Drugland, which looked at heroin and crack use, dealers and law enforcement in Bristol.
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“Discussions with people in the sector and with other specialists lead me to believe that investing in drug consumption spaces – where drug users can have their drugs tested, receive counselling and, above all, consume drugs safely and with no associated harms to the rest of us – would be money well invested or at least worth exploring further,” she told Parliament four years ago.
“We would gain in the reduced cost to emergency services, local council cleaning services and the prevention of drug-related deaths,” she added.
In 2018, Ms Debbonaire said the unsafe use of injected illegal drugs was costing the NHS in Bristol at least £1.3 million a year, with the number of admissions to the BRI alone.
What does the Government say?
At the start of this year, the Mayor of Bristol said he wanted a ‘city conversation’ about the calls from the Bristol-based Transform Drug Policy group, and a host of other drug charities and health organisations for Bristol to have a drug consumption space, and he and the Labour councillors were re-elected on a manifesto commitment to lobby the Government to be allowed to set one up officially.
The city’s police, council and health authorities drew up a five-year plan to reduce drug use and the harms caused by it, and that listed drug consumption rooms as a potential solution, but such a project to be done officially would require a change in the law.
Nothing has happened officially – despite the authorities seemingly backing or being sympathetic to the idea of trialling the idea – because the Government in London is not in favour, and it would need legal backing.
In September, the council announced that Deputy Mayor Cllr Asher Craig had expressed to the government that Bristol would be ‘interested in piloting an approach’, but the Home Office soon scuppered the idea.
“We have no plans to introduce drug consumption rooms and anyone running them would be committing a range of offences including possession of a controlled drug and being concerned in the supply of a controlled drug,” a spokesperson for the Home Office said.
“Our approach on drugs remains clear – we must prevent drug use in our communities, support people through treatment and recovery, and tackle the supply of illegal drugs,” he added.
So the approach today of Avon and Somerset police and Bristol City Council to the arrival of the mobile Overdose Prevention Centre in Bristol remains to be seen in practice.
Peter Krykant, who founded the service in early 2020, said the sheer number of people who have used it in Glasgow shows it is needed.
“When I started the Overdose Prevention Service in 2020 it was always about showing that our drug laws are outdated and not fit for purpose.
“Little did I know we would gain national and international support. Operating four days a week, and supervising around five injections per hour as well as helping reverse a number of overdoses that could have been fatal, we achieved a lot.
“However given the scale of mass street injecting, discarded needles, deaths and other health issues, we now need official sites across the UK. That must include Bristol,” he added.
Maggie Telfer, from the Bristol Drugs Project, explained why they were backing the move and would be supporting the drug consumption space.
“At BDP we provide almost everything an OPC does – sterile equipment, sharps bins for safe disposal, naloxone supply, treatment for overdoses, wound care, blood testing, safer injecting advice, and we both provide and refer people to drug treatment, health and housing services. With one vital exception – a hygienic place for people to inject their drugs,” she said.
“As a country which pioneered harm-reducing needle and syringe programmes, which BDP has provided since 1987, we now trail behind, rather than lead, most of Europe in creating OPCs as the vital missing piece in the UK’s harm reduction and treatment strategy,” she said.
At the weekend, the 10th annual ‘Celebration of Life’ memorial service for people who have lost their lives to drugs in Bristol was held – and Ms Telfer said that reinforced the need for safer spaces for people to take drugs.
“Bristol’s oldest building, St James’ Priory, was filled with people who have lost their loved ones to drug or alcohol use at the 10th annual ‘Celebration of Life’,” she said.
“OPCs are a pragmatic and humane response to a problem that isn’t disappearing anytime soon and would perhaps help reduce the numbers of people at our 2022 ‘Celebration of Life’, remembering loved ones they have lost,” she added.