Safe for whom? France considers legal safe houses for drug users

The National Assembly voted earlier this month to approve the opening of three trial centers in the hope of keeping heroin addicts off the street. 

Benoit Tessier/Reuters/File
The 10th arrondissement has been proposed as the location for the first drug consumption center in Paris, where it would provide support to the estimated 3,000 drugs users around the Gare du Nord train station.

Drug users in France may soon have so-called salles de shoot – complete with medical supervision – in which to get high.

Earlier this month, the National Assembly, the lower house of France's parliament, passed a bill that legalizes drug consumption rooms. The facilities would provide users with clean needles and come staffed with counselors and health care workers, all made available without fear of prosecution.

The proposed safe houses – which would first open in Paris, Strasbourg, and Bordeaux – come at a time when drug use in France remains slightly above average compared to other nations in the European Union.

Supporters of the bill say it will help reduce drug-related crime and disease for the more than 80,000 intravenous drug users in the country. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes estimated in 2010 that 7.2 percent of them have HIV and that 36.4 percent have Hepatitis C. French Social Affairs and Health Minister Marisol Touraine says upwards of 400 people die from overdoes each year.

While opponents argue that the centers would encourage drug use by providing users with impunity, a recent study found that they lead to safer drug use in addition to a wide array of health and social benefits. 

“Research has also shown that the use of supervised drug consumption facilities is associated with self-reported reductions in injecting risk behavior such as syringe sharing,” says Dagmar Hedrich, a researcher at the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction. “This reduces behaviors that increase the risk of HIV transmission and overdose death.” 

A Senate vote is the last remaining barrier that stands in the way of France joining a short but growing list of countries with drug consumption centers. The first one opened in Switzerland in 1986, and there are now 86 across Western Europe.

'A lawless space'

Ms. Hedrich says consumption rooms have a greater effect when they are part of comprehensive local strategies to respond to drug-related problems. This could be a challenge in France, where local officials and parent groups have rallied against the proposed bill.

Several members of the center-right party, Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, say the priority should be on prevention and therapy to get drug users clean. The French organization Parents Against Drugs has been equally adamant in its opposition to the bill. 

“A drug consumption room is a lawless space where illicit drug consumption is linked, in the immediate vicinity, to drug trafficking,” says the group’s president, Serge Lebigot. “It sends a strong signal to drug dealers, just like with any initiative that makes drug consumption a positive thing, or facilitates or trivializes it."

Parents Against Drugs helped kill a similar push in 2013 to open a drug safe house in Paris’s 10th arrondissement. The group helped block the project by arguing that it violated a 1970 law that bans the transportation, trafficking, and consumption of narcotics.

The current bill will have to get past several international agreements that France signed and ratified on the use and sale of drugs, says Guillame Jeanson, a lawyer for parents against drugs. In addition, Mr. Jeanson says the International Narcotics Control Board urged countries in a 2009 report to close drug safe houses and instead offer social and health services to users. All of this information could help the group make a case against the bill.

“We are thinking of what kinds of action we can take this time,” Mr. Lebigot says. “If the bill is passed by senators, the only recourse left will be to go to the Constitutional Court.”

Growing acceptance

Despite the heated opposition from conservative groups, most French people appear to support the opening of the facilities. A poll taken in 2013 by the French Monitoring Center For Drugs and Drug Addiction found that 58 percent of respondents were in favor of them.

Such sentiments reflect a growing acceptance of drug safe houses across Europe, where the majority of the world’s facilities have opened. But supporters admit that they still have a long ways to go in convincing the public of their benefits.

“When you don’t know enough about these facilities, you’re led by fear and misunderstanding,” says Martine Baudin, the director of the Quai 9 drug consumption center in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ms. Baudin says that community outreach programs – from syringe clean-up drives to public meetings – have helped Quai 9 gain the trust and respect of local residents.

“The goal is to find solutions that work for everyone,” she says.

To test the effects of drug consumption centers in France, the bill allows them to operate for six years before undergoing a parliamentary assessment to decide whether to keep them open.

Meanwhile, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Paris await the green light from the government before finalizing plans on the location of their centers. In the French capital, the facility would likely open in the 10th arrondissement near Gare du Nord, one of Paris’s busiest train stations, which counts some 3,000 drug users in its vicinity.

But the safe houses could face opposition from local residents if it’s built at the same location suggested in 2013. Two years ago, aggrieved neighbors covered their balconies with banners against the salle de shoot. Many worry that the facility would attract drug users from around the city to their neighborhood, causing public disturbances and crime.

Despite such resistance, the mayor of the 10th arrondissement, Rémi Féraud, told Agence France-Presse earlier this month that he supports the opening of a safe house to get drug users off the streets. He said that users often used public toilets in the neighborhood to shoot up and that syringes made their way into the gutters.

“We are still very much in favor of trying out this facility,” Mr. Féraud told AFP.

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