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Could a safe room for users be the solution to city's drug 'crisis'?

PUBLISHED: 12:03 23 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:29 23 January 2020

The council has agreed to make steps to overhaul drug policy and treatment in Norwich. File photo depicting heroin use. Picture: Paul Faith/PA Wire

The council has agreed to make steps to overhaul drug policy and treatment in Norwich. File photo depicting heroin use. Picture: Paul Faith/PA Wire

A councillor believes Norwich could be the ideal place to pilot a "safe space" scheme for drug users in a bid to address what he describes as a "crisis" hitting the city.

Martin Schmierer, Green Party group leader, has put forward the issue for debate at City Hall, arguing that providing a safe space could go a long way to reducing the number of deaths as a result of drug abuse - while also helping to curb anti-social behaviour as a result.

Already in action in places in Europe such as Portugal, safe spaces - or drug consumption rooms - are facilities where people battling drug addiction can legally take substances in a controlled environment, in the presence of medical professionals and social workers.

Mr Schmierer said he would be keen for the city to be a pioneering location for the system in the United Kingdom, which he says in other parts of the world has helped reduce drug-related deaths and the spread of illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis caused by sharing of needles.

He said: "In the places it has been trialed they have seen a reduction in the number of deaths related to drug use. Often if people are taking drugs on the streets they will have no idea of what the dosage is, exactly what they are taking and how to administer it properly.

City councillor and Green Party group leader Martin Schmierer. Picture: Bill SmithCity councillor and Green Party group leader Martin Schmierer. Picture: Bill Smith

"Having medical professionals and social services in the facility would mean that this risk would be reduced and that the people using it can be signposted to the support they need to wean themselves off."

He added: "With issues like county lines we have seen how anti-social behaviour can stem from drug use and that it is a problem police simply can't arrest away. No matter how many people are arrested for drug offences they always seem to be replaced with another.

"Drug misuse needs to be looked at as much as a health issue as it is a crime issue and safe spaces would make a real difference."

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The proposal has been greeted with caution by The Matthew Project, a Norfolk-based charity which works alongside adults and children across East Anglia who are battling addiction.

Andy Sexton, its chief executive, said: "As a charity, we do wholeheartedly agree that addiction needs to be treated as a health and mental health issue - as opposed to a criminal issue.

"However, we would not be able to support safe rooms without research into them being done incredibly carefully and without significant additional investment into mental health service.

"The danger with safe rooms is that the people using them need to have a real appetite for change - rather than just seeing them as a way to get their fix and move on."

Susan Campbell, youth and family development manager at the charity, added: "There has been a dramatic reduction in the amounts of deaths from illnesses like HIV in Portugal, however, the success has not come overnight. It has taken a lot of work."

The proposals come at a time when drug use - influenced in part by county lines drug dealing - is proving a stubborn problem.

In August, figures from the Office for National Statistics indicated that Norwich had the second highest number of drug-poisoning deaths in the country. The figures also showed the city had the fourth highest number of deaths related to drug misuse.

In Norfolk, the number of overall drugs deaths has risen by 54pc in the last five years.

The motion will be debated by Norwich City Council on Tuesday, January 28.

We contacted Norfolk County Council for comment.

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