Police give out free heroin to fight addiction

Help yourself? Giving a patient supervised injectable heroin costs about £15,000 per year.

Heroin is causing more deaths than ever in the UK and USA. Now a UK police force plans to help addicts inject themselves legally. A fair response to an illness, or encouraging dependency?

Steve could be at an ordinary doctor’s surgery. When he walks through the doors of InSite, he gives a name to the receptionist. But it is not his real name.

And when he takes a seat, he receives a clean needle and sterilised equipment. He then calmly injects himself with heroin.

InSite is a legal safe drug addiction centre in the Canadian city of Vancouver. Steve visits to take drugs, and faces no risk of being arrested.

Around 90 such “fix rooms” — also known as “shooting galleries” — are now believed to exist around the world. And yesterday police in Durham, in England’s north-east, announced a radical step. They not only plan to fund the rooms but to use police budgets to buy the heroin.

Heroin, which is made from morphine, is a very strong painkiller which relaxes users. But it damages the blood vessels, is highly addictive, and can kill in several ways. It is also linked to crime and a range of social problems.

Addiction rates soared in countries such as Britain and America in the late 20th century. New York saw a heroin epidemic in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the rise in heroin use in Edinburgh in the 1980s inspired the film Trainspotting.

Initially most governments treated drugs as a criminal issue. American President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971. But since the first fix rooms opened in Switzerland in the 1990s, the focus has moved towards treatment for addiction.

Mike Barton, Durham police chief constable, says: “Addiction is a medical problem, not a criminal justice problem.” And those who use the rooms say they save lives. Steve says he is glad his three overdoses were at InSite. In Toronto, also in Canada, Amy Wright’s friend died of a heroin overdose. “If supervised injection sites were around when he was, he would not be dead,” she says.

But heroin abuse remains a major problem. In the UK, heroin-related poisonings more than doubled between 2012 and 2015. In the USA, deaths from heroin overdoses more than quadrupled between 2009 and 2015. So is this the right approach?

Fixing it

Yes, say liberals. Addicts are patients who deserve dignity and safety. Many studies have shown that taking drugs regularly re-wires the brain and prompts the craving for chemical highs. So treatment is a sensible medical response to the illness of addiction. And it works practically: where it is tried, social problems fall.

Bad idea, respond conservatives. We have rushed to medicalise a problem which is largely caused by a breakdown in personal responsibility. Telling people someone else will give them drugs, and they cannot help themselves, is cruelty disguised as kindness. Treating drug use as a crime encourages people to make the right choice.

You Decide

  1. Does tough love work?
  2. Should addicts be treated as criminals or patients?


  1. Work in pairs. Fast forward five years. You are journalists charged with finding out how successful “fix rooms” have been. Write a list of questions you would want to know the answer to.
  2. Write a two-page essay plan under the following heading: “Drug addicts are criminals. Discuss.” Make at least three strong points on either side of the argument.

Some People Say...

“Harming your own body should never be a crime.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I am not a heroin addict, thankfully. Does this matter?
A worryingly high number of people do use heroin regularly. These may often be people you walk past on the street, perhaps without thinking much about them. And drug use is linked to many social problems, particularly crime. These could affect you directly — for example, you could be the victim of a crime. And they will certainly affect you indirectly (for example, if the unemployment rate in your local area rises, people will get poorer).
But I don’t live in any of the areas mentioned in this article.
You might be surprised by how common drug use is in your local area. One common misconception is that it is confined to poorer areas. But several studies in recent years have shown it rising among the wealthy in Britain and America.

Word Watch

Opened in 2003, it was the first legal safe drug addiction centre in North America.
Heroin users often share needles, syringes and other equipment — bringing the risk of infections such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV-AIDS.
This is extracted from the opium poppy.
For example, it can cause people to choke on their vomit or develop gangrene. An overdose can lead to coma and death from respiratory failure.
For example in October a facility was approved in Glasgow — the first of its kind in Britain. And in December the Canadian government said it would relax restrictions on setting them up.
The nature of addiction has changed. The number of young addicts has fallen sharply — by 79% in a decade — while the number of older ones has grown.
The number of deaths rose from 579 in 2012 to 1,201 in 2015.
This rose from around 3,000 in 2009 to nearly 13,000 in 2015. In the USA more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015 — more than ever before. The trend has been linked to the proliferation of painkillers in the 1990s.

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