Belfast councillors support safe injection facility but law change needed first
Belfast City Councillors have backed a motion to support the creation of a Drug Overdose Prevention Centre, which would provide clean needles and supervision to drug users.
It comes as almost 350 drug-related deaths have been recorded in Belfast between 2017 and 2021.
This year, it is understood that at least five people have met a similar fate as the intertwining issues of drugs, mental health issues and homelessness continue to ruin lives.
There are around 200 safe injection facilities across the world in 16 counties, but here, they are outlawed under the UK-wide Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
At the full meeting of Belfast City Council this week, a motion by the Green Party, with an Alliance amendment, passed giving support to the establishment of an overdose prevention facility in Belfast.
Only the DUP said they would not explicitly support the motion, but added that they would not vote against it.
Councillors support the idea, but more importantly, it seems families who have lost a loved one to drugs agree.
I spoke to two women today who have been bereaved in this way - both said they believed their relatives would still be alive today if services like this existed.
They also continued to appeal for dual-services, which means mental health support and drug addiction support in tandem.
Charities who work with people who are experiencing homelessness welcome the council's move.
"There will be people who are supportive of it but there will also be people who will be unsure about it," said Liz Rocks, who is services co-ordinator at Belfast Homeless Services.
She is determined to have users and their families involved in talks.
"We need to go out and talk to them, because why talk to me? Why talk to other professionals?
"Yes we have experience with them but why not directly talk to them themselves because they will tell you whether they will go and use that place or not.
"Also I think the families that have lost loved ones... Families need to be engaged with properly because they're the ones dealing with the grief."
Indeed, a number of meetings with families and the departments of Health, Justice and Communities have taken place in recent months, and these have been welcomed.
Damian McNairney is a volunteer and trustee at The People's Kitchen in North Belfast.
They deliver a host of services, including night time hot-dinner runs for those in need in the city centre.
"These safe rooms are to be encouraged, but we want to wait and see when bricks and mortar arrive," he said.
"Talk is very cheap, so until we actually see the service being provided alongside a dual diagnosis centre, we won't make judgement, but we will continue to pressure.
"The figure of 350 people in the city centre alone has been mentioned, but that negates deaths like suicide and organ failure.
"These are vast figures, this is an epidemic and we really need to grasp it.
"Each story has got a background, these are real people that we are talking about."
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne addressed the subject of the injection facilities at Thursday's Policing Board meeting.
He said he welcomes potential change but called for it to be "Health led".
A Department of Justice statement said: "The Department has contributed to the development of the Department of Health-led Substance Use Strategy.
This Strategy recognises the need to target those most at risk, including people who are homeless, those who inject drugs and those in contact with the Justice system.
"However, the Department understands that Overdose Prevention Centres are currently not possible under the UK-wide Misuse of Drugs Act 1971."
The Department of Health also responded to UTV's query. The written response said:
"It is the Department’s understanding that “Drugs Consumption Rooms” or “Overdose Prevention Facilities” are not currently permitted under the UK-wide Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
The Department will continue to monitor the evidence in respect of effective interventions and develop new proposals, within the wider legislative framework, as appropriate.
"The Department will also continue to monitor developments in other administrations.
"The Department’s Substance Use Strategy - ‘Preventing Harm, Empowering Recovery’ - recognises the need to target those most at risk, including those who are homeless, people who inject drugs and those who are in contact with the justice system.
"The strategy, which was agreed by the former Executive, aims to directly reduce the harm for these groups through actions that place emphasis on harm reduction support measures for people who use alcohol and other drugs.
"A range of services are available for those who require help and support with substance use, and for their families.
"This ranges from education, prevention and awareness raising to harm reduction and inpatient treatment and support. A directory of services available in each Trust area across Northern Ireland is available online at: https://drugsandalcoholni.info/self-help-resources/.
"However, in recognising this as a growing issue, work is underway to develop a new strategic plan for substance use services which will seek to improve the availability, accessibility and quality of the support provided across Northern Ireland."
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