A panel of drug experts has suggested special rooms should be opened in Brighton and Hove for addicts to inject heroin legally. The idea has gathered support from city leaders and frontline workers, who claim it would slash drug death rates. But, as Bill Gardner reports, some have reacted to the recommendation with outrage.

A furious minister has slammed “illegal” plans to open shooting galleries for heroin addicts in Brighton and Hove.

Speaking in Westminster, Leader of the House Andrew Lansley told MPs the controversial idea could cause “significant harm” and encourage drug trafficking.

The exchange followed the publication yesterday of a report into drug use in Brighton and Hove.

Special “drug consumption rooms” should be opened where heroin addicts can legally inject themselves with the drug, under the supervision of nurses, without fear of arrest.

This is the most controversial of 20 recommendations from the Independent Drugs Commission for Brighton and Hove, which published its report into drug taking in the city yesterday (April 18).

The plan, championed by the city’s Green MP Caroline Lucas and panel chairman, the crime author Peter James, is due to go before a Brighton and Hove City Council committee in June.

But Minister Andrew Lansley argued in parliament yesterday that legalised shooting galleries, which are already used in some areas of Canada, Australia and Germany, would contravene UN law and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

He said: “Permitting premises to be used for consuming or possessing substances controlled under Section 8 of the is illegal.

“The establishment or operation of drug injection rooms risks encouraging illicit trafficking and carries a significant risk of harm in local communities.”

According to former Government drugs czar Mike Trace, the commission’s vice chair, there was a “grey area” over whether a law change would be required to open the drug rooms.

And despite Mr Lansley’s rebuttal, drug experts and city leaders vowed to plough on with the idea at a meeting after yesterday’s launch.

Street drugs reduced

They argued the drug rooms would reduce the risk of overdoses and other drug-related deaths, as well as decreasing the amount of drug-taking on the streets of Brighton and Hove.

Other suggestions included making Naloxone, a prescription drug which can prevent fatal overdoses, directly available to users.

Services for young drug takers should also be separated, according to the report, to prevent them mixing with older, more established users.

Rick Cook from the mental health charity MIND, who works with heroin users, said the idea could put addicts “on the road to recovery”.

Creating fear

He said: “In this city, people find places to inject in hallways, stairways, parks, anywhere they can find. It’s not safe.

“Many users don’t have a clue what they are injecting and that creates a lot of fear.

“This would be much safer and would help hard-to-reach people get the help they need.”

Other speakers said the proposed drug rooms would not be “sterile prisons” but places where addicts could “relax”.

'Makes sense'

Drug rooms expert Charlie Lloyd, a senior lecturer at the University of York, said the shooting galleries could have “chill out rooms” and a cafe where addicts could eat food and play computer games.

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, said it was important addicts were encouraged to come back to the drug rooms after their first visit.

She said: “It makes perfect sense to me. If they are able to have a cup of tea rather than going straight out the door, then they are engaging with staff.”

More than 60,000 people in Brighton and Hove, which has a population of just over 270,000, have used drugs, according to the commission.

Drug deaths

They include more than 2,000 problem heroin and cocaine users.

For several years Brighton |had more drug-related deaths than any other city in the UK - in 2000, 67 residents died from drug misuse.

But in 2011, Brighton saw 22 drug-related deaths, dropping the city down to eighth in the table.

The drug rooms plan will now go before a council committee in June, which will decide whether to start a feasibility study.

According to supporters, fears the drug rooms would attract dealers were unfounded, despite reports to the contrary from similar schemes already implemented abroad.

Work together

Dr Lucas said: “It’s a risk only if the health authorities and police don’t work together.

“If they do, this would not be a problem.

“Twenty years ago needle exchanges were incredibly controversial but now they’re completely accepted.”

And Dr Lucas had words of reassurance for residents who might be worried that a shooting gallery might pop up near their homes.

She said: “It’s very early days and we have no idea where these might be until we have conducted a feasibility study.

Safe place

“If we do get to a stage where we are looking at siting, the community would have to be consulted on that.

“But the evidence shows that people would rather have heroin addicts in a safe place off the streets, not leaving needles around.

“It would not have a harmful effect on their community.”

But former city police commander Graham Bartlett told the meeting: “There would need to be some legislative provision to allow people to get there without being arrested.

“At the moment that isn’t the case.

Community impact

“I’d be concerned about the impact on communities where drug use is tolerated.

“Would that bring the supply and market here? Where would you put these centres?

“The perception might be that if there is a drug room, that then becomes a lawless area.”

And Kemptown MP Simon Kirby spoke of his “concerns” that drug rooms could spring up near schools.

Eliminate drug use

He said: “We need to be working to eliminate drug use not just managing it.

“I am very concerned as to where these premises are likely to be located, if indeed they are even legal, and how they will be managed.

“Brighton needs a clear response regarding the drug issue in the city and I am not convinced this is the best way forward.”

‘I think drug dealers will stay away’

One heroin addict said legalised drug rooms would “fail to deal with the problem”.

Tyler, from Brighton and Hove, said health bosses and police needed to spend money on helping users rid themselves of addiction rather than helping them take more drugs.

But he agreed fewer addicts would die from overdoses if the plan went ahead.

He said: “I think they are not doing enough to get people off drugs for good. They are parking people on heroin because it suits their stats.

“This is not dealing with the problem because they need to get people clean.”

The addict said the rooms would attract “mostly homeless people” because others would stay in the safety of their own homes.

He said: “People that have their own space wouldn't bother. But at least it gives us somewhere clean to go so people don't have to do it in public.

“I think drug dealers will stay away because they know police will be on the lookout for them.

“I suppose overall it's a good thing because people are going to take drugs regardless of the law and it's better if they don't die.”

Talking point: To what extent do you think drug consumption rooms will help tackle Brighton and Hove's drugs problems?

What do you think should be done to resolve drug-related issues in the city?

Share your views by commenting below or write in to The Argus letters pages by emailing letters@theargus.co.uk

See the latest news headlines from The Argus:

More news from The Argus

Follow @brightonargus

The Argus: Daily Echo on Facebook - facebook.com/southerndailyecho Like us on Facebook

The Argus: Google+ Add us to your circles on Google+