In the news: drug consumption rooms

Ahead of a UK-wide summit on drug-related deaths being held in Glasgow, Kit Malthouse...
Created On: 03/03/2020   (Last updated: 09/10/2020)

Ahead of a UK-wide summit on drug-related deaths being held in Glasgow, Kit Malthouse (the Minister of State for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service) dismissed the possibility of the government shifting its policy on drug consumption rooms:

“One of the issues in politics is people do reach for a simple solution, and, while drug consumption rooms have been used around the world, to a variable degree, and the research is mixed, even if we were to start it would take some time to get them in place. They’re quite small-scale and the scale of the problem certainly in Scotland demands a much more assertive approach.

“I think it is a distraction. We’re not convinced yet that the evidence is there.”

That drug consumption rooms could be a “distraction” stole the headlines (1 2 3), but it was the depiction of the evidence base as “mixed” that stood out to Drug and Alcohol Findings.

Drug consumption rooms tend to emerge from local initiatives aimed at reducing the harms and risks associated with public injecting. Under these circumstances, it has proven difficult (and ethically complicated) to evaluate drug consumption rooms via randomised controlled trials – the scientific ‘gold standard’ for determining a causal effect. However, robust research alternatives have been used, and far from the evidence being ‘mixed’, there has been consistent and “almost unanimous” support for drug consumption rooms.

When we reviewed the literature in 2016 and again in 2019, we came to the conclusion that drug consumption rooms more likely than not made drug use safer (e.g. increased access to health and social services, and helped identify and respond to emergencies), and did so without the feared countervailing harms (e.g. encouraging drug use, delaying treatment entry or aggravating problems arising from local drug markets).

The evidence base was persuasive enough that in 2002, 2006, and 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee on drugs policy, the Independent Working Group on Drug Consumption Rooms, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended that the United Kingdom introduce pilot drug consumption rooms to determine their acceptability, feasibility, and effectiveness in the British context.

So why then have successive governments remained unconvinced?

In “Time for safer injecting spaces in Britain?”, Drug and Alcohol Findings examines the strengths and pitfalls of the literature on drug consumption rooms, and how values can influence the way people engage with the evidence base.

Natalie Davies is co-editor of Drug and Alcohol Findings