July 2021 – The City of Strasbourg, the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe and the Ithaque Association, which manages Strasbourg’s Argos Low-Risk Drug Consumption Room, in partnership with Efus, the French Interministerial mission to combat drugs and addictive behaviour (Mildeca), the ARS regional health agency for the Grand Est region and the Correlation Network organised the second European symposium on Drug Consumption Rooms (DCRs) at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, on 1 July.
The event, organised in a hybrid format, gathered institutional stakeholders and associations, facility managers and European policymakers. The first symposium of this kind was held in 2019.
Maintaining the momentum in the face of major challenges
Titled “Low-risk drug consumption rooms in Europe: maintaining the momentum in the face of the major challenges of the 21st-century,” the symposium set out to discuss European experiences and the various legal frameworks and their development, in addition to assessing innovations and prospects in the field of harm reduction and drug policy. The insights from the Efus-led Solidify project (2018-2020), which sought to give local authorities tools to support the management of local DCRs and to evaluate the impact of such facilities on users and local residents, contributed to the conversation.
Evidence shows that DCRs reduce risks
In line with the EU drugs strategy 2021-20251 and based on the evidence brought by cities’ experiences and key scientific studies, participants reaffirmed their support for DCRs and advocated for the implementation of new facilities across Europe.
Indeed, evidence shows that low-risk DCRs help reduce drug-related health issues and deaths as they limit the risk of overdose and increase drug users’ access to health care and treatment (see recent study published by Inserm on French DCRs). In particular, DCRs enable marginalised or homeless drug users to access social and health services.
These facilities also tend to reduce public disorder and local crime as they limit drug consumption in public space. DCRs have also played an important role during the COVID-19 health crisis by providing a continuity of care at a time when overdoses and mortality were increasing. Bjorn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, said that decision makers should ensure that “policy, practice and science are linked” and that human rights are put at the heart of drug policies. Low-risk DCRs fully guarantee these conditions.
Experiences from several European cities
Representatives of the cities of Athens, Bordeaux, Copenhagen, Dublin, Lisbon, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nantes, Paris, Strasbourg, Liège, and of the Region of Jämtland and Härjedalen described how low-risk consumption rooms represent great opportunities for public health and security at the local level.
The City of Lille’s representative presented its project of opening a DCR in October 2021 and prospects to install additional facilities if greenlighted by authorities. In Belgium, Liège’s DCR is located in front of a police station, which according to Mayor Willy Demeyer, who is also President of Efus, helped foster acceptability. Later this year, Brussels will become the second Belgian city to host a low-risk DCR.
The representatives of the cities of Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille and Montpellier all said they support harm reduction in the field of drug policy and wish to open a low-risk DCR. They are currently striving to convince the relevant stakeholders.
DCRs do not encourage drug use
Elected officials insisted on the fact that drug consumption rooms do not encourage drug use and do not negatively impact public security. Local authorities, researchers and local residents’ associations reported that low-risk drug facilities actually contribute to improving public order and social cohesion in their vicinity.
As underlined by the French Minister of Solidarity and Health, Olivier Véran, “public security is a very important aspect” of DCRs. Indeed, low-risk drug facilities contribute to the improvement of the security of all citizens, including both local residents and drug users. Relatedly, Anne Souyris, Deputy of the Mayor of Paris in charge of health, pointed out that there is a causal link between the improvement in the health of drug users and the improvement of public order and tranquility.
In order to successfully promote the opening of new DCRs, it is important to debunk misconceptions and improve acceptability among the general public, notably by continuing to share evidence on DCRs’ usefulness and efficiency. Moreover, legal barriers and the lack of strong partnerships often stall cities’ projects to open a DCR, despite their efforts.
Lessons learned from local authorities show there is no perfect formula for opening a DCR. Working on building strong alliances and on a consensus between political and social actors is essential. Close cooperation with law enforcement, as seen through the experience of Barcelona and Lisbon, is also a key step in the implementation of DCRs. Carla Napolano, Deputy Director of Efus, highlighted that strong partnerships with all types of stakeholders are crucial for the sustainability of DCRs.
Pilot projects to gain support
Pilot projects such as mobile consumption rooms can help form alliances and gain support from key stakeholders and the community, as pointed out by harm reduction representatives from the cities of Lisbon and Dublin. Representatives from the City of Athens emphasized that we should also keep in mind past experiences with unsupervised drug use and HIV contaminations to shed light on the importance of harm reduction policy.
Finally, concerning drug policy in general, the Mayor in charge of social services of the City of Copenhagen insisted that we should move away from the field of penal policy to that of public health. She suggested starting a conversation on decriminalising drug consumption in order to leave more room for public health improvement.
Strengthening collaboration among European cities
Elected officials highlighted the importance of increasing collaboration between European cities to establish key partnerships and help set up new DCRs in Europe. Participants discussed setting up a European network of Drug Consumption Rooms that could include local politicians, practitioners, grassroot organisations as well as representatives of drug users to pursue discussions on good practices and exchange points of view.
Instead of reinventing what is already done and to avoid duplication, participants want to gather their forces and bring together associations that already exist, such as Efus and Correlation Network, in order to have the largest impact possible. The opportunity of forming a platform for political advocacy was also discussed. The statutes and objectives of such new network remain to be decided at a future general assembly, with the support of the Pompidou Group and the City of Strasbourg.
Willy Demeyer, Mayor of Liège and President of Efus reminded that Efus continues to support European cities in adopting harm reduction drug policy and in implementing low-risk drug facilities.
> More information on the work carried out by Efus on drugs (political positioning, projects, publications) here
1 EU drug strategy: the objectives are to protect and improve the well-being of society and of the individual; protect and promote public health; offer a high level of security and well-being for the general public; and increase health literacy.