Denmark opens more 'drug rooms' after successful trial

April 10, 2014 by Sören Billing

The gangly, 46-year-old father of three speaks five languages and talks effortlessly about international politics. What he can't do, for the moment at least, is kick his cocaine and heroin habit.

But when he shoots up, Kais Neni now goes to a supervised, state-funded room—Denmark's 18-month-old approach to a problem with no easy solution.

"It's better than being in the streets," said Neni, before getting his fix in the space where a medical professional remains on hand to help drug users if they overdose.

After kicking his 15-year habit three years ago, Neni relapsed and headed back to the streets of Vesterbro, a seedy but gentrifying neighbourhood behind Copenhagen's main train station.

The area is home to Scandinavia's largest and most open drug scene, where for years residents and tourists have grown used to seeing addicts shoot up in phone booths, stairwells or simply on the pavements.

"Having a drug consumption room is accepting something that is already happening," said Rasmus Koberg Christiansen, the manager of two of the three state-funded drug consumption rooms in Copenhagen.

The first one opened in the capital in October 2012 and there are now rooms in every one of Denmark's main cities.

"No country has solved the drug problem. There are countries that hand down death sentences for taking drugs but they still have problems," he said.

"It's an acknowledgement of the fact that there really are some people whom we can't reach with rehab—right now. And what do we do with those people?" he added.

The approach contrasts markedly with Scandinavian neighbour Sweden's strict "zero tolerance" policy, which is credited with giving Sweden one of Europe's lowest illicit drug consumption rates—but is also blamed for a rising number of drug-related deaths as addicts fear seeking help for an overdose.

Little opposition

Proponents of drug consumption rooms say they reduce the drug paraphernalia on the streets—children in the area have been caught playing with needles—and help prevent the spread of disease among addicts. They also restore some dignity to a highly vulnerable group by allowing them to take their drugs in a safe, hygienic environment.

More importantly, advocates believe it prevents deadly overdoses. In 2011, Denmark recorded 285 , an all-time high. In 2012, it was down to 210, the lowest number in 19 years and believed in part thanks to the drug rooms.

Safe rooms where addicts can take drugs without fear of prosecution first appeared in Switzerland in the 1980s.

Supervised injection sites in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands followed, but Denmark has drawn attention abroad because it's the first country in more than a decade to have introduced them.

Police do not go inside the safe rooms. While they do not tolerate the sale of drugs and can still arrest someone for illicit drug possession in Vesterbro, they usually won't confiscate the drugs of a user headed to a safe room.

Unlike certain other countries, Denmark has had little opposition to opening drug rooms, either in major cities or smaller towns.

Danish policy makers have tried to make the centres more accessible than in other European countries, notably by limiting bureaucracy.

Users simply have to register an alias, their hometown and what drugs they use before they can enter the facility. Addicts are never banned from the premises even if they turn violent or threaten staff.

The users have to bring their own drugs but the centre provides clean needles, special exhaust fans for smokers, and even a machine to help addicts find veins that haven't collapsed.

Since Denmark opened its first drug consumption rooms a year and a half ago, there have been 150 overdoses, none of which were fatal, official figures show.

'In no way fancy'

Last August, the government decided to provide national funding for drug taking rooms after the ones financed by the city of Copenhagen were deemed a success.

Official figures show that one of the capital's rooms recorded 2,400 unique users and 500 to 800 instances of drug consumption— by injection or smoking —a day.

Not all agree with the initiative, however.

"Drug consumption rooms are the same as giving up on people instead of working to give them a second chance in life," conservative lawmaker Tom Behnke wrote before the first room opened.

Others fear the rooms will create more addicts by making life for "too easy".

But Koberg Christiansen disagrees. "A drug consumption room is in no way fancy," he said. "This is a very, very tough environment. It's hardcore, and there's nobody who's getting an easier life."

Typical is the safe room addict Neni uses, inside a homeless shelter. Though spotless, the air had a funky smell and blood splattered on the floor as a man next to Neni tried to inject himself.

"There aren't any young people who come here just because they think it's fun," said Koberg Christiansen.

Explore further: Montreal seeks drug law exemption for consumption rooms

Related Stories

Montreal seeks drug law exemption for consumption rooms

December 11, 2013
Montreal health officials demanded a legal exemption Wednesday to allow four "shooting galleries" for addicts to inject drugs legally and under supervision.

US: Heroin an urgent 'public health crisis'

March 10, 2014
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday called an increase in heroin-related deaths an "urgent and growing public health crisis" and said first responders should carry with them a drug that can reverse the effects of ...

Tangiers pioneer clinic fights drug addiction, stigma

October 29, 2013
In Morocco's drug capital Tangiers, a pioneering clinic is trying to help addicts fight a rising habit in a conservative Muslim state where many would prefer the problem stay underground.

Heroin antidote stirs debate in US as deaths rise

February 27, 2014
(AP)—As deaths from heroin and powerful painkillers increase throughout the U.S., governments and clinics are working to put a drug that can reverse an opiate overdose into the hands of more paramedics, police officers ...

US heroin addicts face barriers to treatment

April 6, 2014
As the ranks of heroin users rise in the U.S., increasing numbers of addicts are looking for help but are failing to find it—because there are no beds in packed facilities, treatment is hugely expensive and insurance companies ...

European drug experts sound warning on austerity

November 25, 2013
Drug experts and policy makers from around Europe gathered in Athens to urge governments to exclude drug-abuse treatment from austerity budget cuts, citing an alarming rise in HIV infections among drug users in Greece.

Recommended for you

Trying to get sober? NIH offers tool to help find good care

October 3, 2017
The phone calls come—from fellow scientists and desperate strangers—with a single question for the alcohol chief at the National Institutes of Health: Where can my loved one find good care to get sober?

Medical students need training to prescribe medical marijuana

September 15, 2017
Although 29 states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana use for medical purposes, few medical students are being trained how to prescribe the drug. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis ...

Protein links alcohol abuse and changes in brain's reward center

September 8, 2017
When given access to alcohol, over time mice develop a pattern similar to what we would call "problem drinking" in people, but the brain mechanisms that drive this shift have been unclear. Now a team of UC San Francisco researchers ...

11 minutes of mindfulness training helps drinkers cut back

August 24, 2017
Brief training in mindfulness strategies could help heavy drinkers start to cut back on alcohol consumption, finds a new UCL study.

Marijuana use amongst youth stable, but substance abuse admissions up

August 15, 2017
While marijuana use amongst youth remains stable, youth admission to substance abuse treatment facilities has increased, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Report reveals underground US haven for heroin, drug users

August 8, 2017
A safe haven where drug users inject themselves with heroin and other drugs has been quietly operating in the United States for the past three years, a report reveals.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.