Mitigating open drug scenes with supervised drug consumption rooms: Essen’s (Germany) experience

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Essen, Germany, January 2019A group of 25 representatives of European municipalities and civil society organisations that are partner in the Efus-led Solidify European project took part in a two-day study visit in Essen (Germany) about harm reduction schemes such as supervised drug consumption rooms. The visit was focused on the impact of such facilities on social cohesion and public order in a local community, and on their integration in a holistic approach of drug users’ care that seeks to empower them.


> Managing public drug use in Essen

Essen, a vibrant city of about 600,000 located in the densely populated post-industrial Ruhr area of North-Rhine Westphalia, was an inspiring location for Solidify’s third study visit. In the 1990s, the city was dealing with the emergence of an extensive open drug scene around the central train station, which generated drug-related crime and nuisance as well as feelings of insecurity among local residents. The municipality  took a wide range of measures to respond to this situation, notably the establishment of a supervised drug consumption room in 2001.

Located in a quiet street in walking distance from the central station, this facility provides a safe space where users are allowed to consume illicit substances in a quiet setting and under the surveillance of nurses and social workers. Following the opening of the consumption room, law enforcement agencies, the relevant municipal services and the drug aid organisation “Suchthilfe direkt” worked together to contain and manage public drug use,  and this resulted in the gradual disappearance of the central train station drug scene as well as improved coexistence in the city centre.


> Supervised consumption rooms and harm reduction

Welcoming the Solidify partners, Peter Renzel, Essen’s Deputy Mayor in charge of public health, said: “The consumption of illegal drugs, especially in public spaces, has always been a challenge not only for consumers, but also for urban society as a whole. It can affect safety and public health beyond the emergence of open drug scenes. The city of Essen has developed successful concepts to contain these effects, guide addicts through the assistance system and offer them survival support and harm reduction. The Essen drug consumption room is an essential part of this success.”

Heino Stöver, a leading German researcher in the science of addiction and one of three experts supporting the Solidify project, supported this assessment with impressive numbers showing how supervised consumption facilities contributed to reducing overdose mortality in German cities.


> Integrated services and local partnerships

The first day of the visit was hosted by Suchthilfe direkt in their service centre for drug users. The Solidify partners visited the supervised drug consumption room and were given a tour of the wide range of other services offered in the centre, including therapy, methadone dispensation, a drop-in centre, a night shelter and medical care. They also went on a walk with a ‘community manager’ who explained how the centre interacts with neighbours and the general public. Through a combination of different services all located in one large building, the association provides a balanced and integrated response to local drug consumption and addiction.

On the second day, hosted by the municipality at the town hall, the group had the opportunity to discuss Essen’s “partnership for local order”. The Deputy Mayor for public security, Christian Kromberg, along with representatives from the police, the public prosecution office and the ‘public order authority’ explained how multi-agency cooperation was encouraged to manage effectively and sustainably drug consumption in public spaces while ensuring the rule of law and offering drug users high quality support.


> Further exchanges in the framework of Solidify

Solidify, a European project led by Efus with 10 local authority partners, offers an exchange and cooperation platform to cities seeking to improve their local drug policies and harm reduction services. It organises audits and study visits during which politicians and technicians can exchange and work together to overcome the obstacles that may prevent cities from designing effective strategies to manage public addictive behaviours with the support of supervised drug consumption facilities.

Apart from further study visits, Solidify is organising  a European symposium titled “Low risk drug consumption rooms in Europe: Assessment and prospects” at the European Parliament in Strasbourg (France), on 3 April 2019, and a final conference at the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addictions (EMCDDA) in Lisbon (Portugal), on 7 and 8 November 2019.