In France, supervised drug consumption rooms are authorised on an experimental basis for a maximum of six years. Strasbourg and Paris are the only two French cities that have opened such facilities. The Strasbourg consumption room, titled Argos, is located in the civilian hospital and receives between 40 and 60 consumers per day. Often hailed as an example to follow, the city of Strasbourg is a partner in the Solidify project. Efus met with Dr Alexandre Feltz, Deputy Mayor in charge of health.
Strasbourg opened a supervised drug consumption room in November 2016. To what security and public health issues does it respond?
The opening of the supervised drug consumption room fulfils a social commitment of our city, which is to help the most vulnerable. Strasbourg has to deal with drug addiction and the issues it creates. People from different origins transit and mix in the city, and even if we did not have open consumption scenes, contrary to other European cities, drug consumption was happening in small scenes such as basements, stairwells or parks. There are also many drug injectors and cases of hepatitis C. These are the groups of population we wanted to reach with the consumption room.
The city has been committed to health for a long time…
Indeed, Strasbourg has been supporting the opening of a supervised drug consumption room since 2011. At the time, French legislation did not authorise it. We thus partnered with other cities and with associations to work on this issue. When in 2016 it became legal to open a supervised drug consumption room on an experimental basis, we were ready. In spite of opposition or concerns, Mayor Roland Ries is a strong believer in this scheme.
Furthermore, Strasbourg is unique in the sense that it is both the capital of Europe and imbued with Rhineland humanism. It is a city that is very committed to social and health matters, and which cares about the most vulnerable, the poor, the ill and the drug addicts. Indeed, nobody sought to gain political profit from the consumption room and 90% of the elected officials members of the City Council voted in favour. This non-conflictive debate allowed us to work very serenely.
Local residents have also easily accepted the new facility. Why, do you reckon?
First of all, a national law was passed, which is important. This allowed us to work with the media to disseminate objective information about the scheme. And with time, public opinion became increasingly favourable to it.
The location of the consumption room is also very important. In Strasbourg, there are several advantages: the facility is inside a hospital, both easily accessible for consumers and far from residential areas. The closest houses are situated 500 metres away, which reduces the risk of tension with local residents. Furthermore, the fact that it is located in a health establishment is consistent with our position of considering drug addicts as sick people rather than offenders.
We are also very careful about security. We cooperate with the Prosecutor’s office and the police, and we set up a local group on crime. We did not receive any complaint yet, but we are aware that this consensus is fragile.
You are a partner in the Solidify project. What do you expect from it?
Being part of a network allows for exchanging practices, techniques and policies and to go forward together. Each European country has its own political and social dynamic. Belgium is a good example: it is very open about social and health matters, but much less about drug consumption rooms.
We have a lot to learn from the project’s partners, and it would be interesting to extend the debate to Canadian cities and our Swiss friends. Working with institutions is necessary but I’m also a strong believer in the local power of cities.
What are the next steps regarding the consumption room?
The big challenge now is accommodation. Addicts come to the consumption room where they can practice safely, but things are different at night. About half of them are homeless and at night they are confronted to rain, cold and insecurity. Each year, homeless people die in Strasbourg. Then there are rough sleepers with hepatitis C, for whom it is very difficult to follow a treatment. We could better attend these patients if we had therapeutic apartments linked to the consumption room.
We also want to work more closely with the Eurodistrict Strasbourg-Ortenau Kreiss, which contributed to the financing of this remarkable project. There is no drug consumption room in the German region situated on the other side of the border, but some users cross over to consume here. The Strasbourg drug consumption room is thus an important step in the development of cross border prevention and for building a common culture among professionals on both sides of the Rhine.