Edwin Poots: ‘Consumption rooms’ not way forward on drugs problem

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride (centre) visited Extern's new services hub in Belfast last week. He is pictured with Extern representatives Thelma Abernethy and Mal Byrne
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride (centre) visited Extern's new services hub in Belfast last week. He is pictured with Extern representatives Thelma Abernethy and Mal Byrne

Suggestions that the provision of special rooms where intravenous drug users can safely inject themselves with illegal substances should be considered in Northern Ireland “smack a bit of desperation”, a former health minister has claimed.

Responding to a marked increase in the use of heroin, and the “significant problem” of drug users injecting in public places, the Province’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, told the BBC that consideration should be given to providing so-called “consumption rooms”.

Edwin Poots MLA

Edwin Poots MLA

But Edwin Poots, who served as health minister between 2011 and 2014, said he is “unconvinced” such a move is the right way forward, and insists more must be done to stop the supply of drugs.

Dr McBride said “all options” that could help reduce the harm associated with intravenous drug misuse should be looked at, but stressed a decision on the matter would have to be taken by a Stormont minister.

His call has been backed by leading social justice charity Extern, which works with people with chronic drug dependency.

Calling for an “honest and courageous conversation” about the issue, Extern CEO Charlie Mack said: “This is an increasingly complex issue, and there are many parts of this puzzle which need to be put in place.

“A medically supervised injecting centre may be a possible piece of that, but we also need to see increased and sustainable funding around these types of services, and importantly, additional investment in the rehabilitation and residential support services which enable people to move on from being dependent on drugs and alcohol.”

Mr Poots acknowledged that there is “a significant problem” in terms of drug abuse in Northern Ireland, and revealed that he and a number of DUP colleagues are due to meet senior PSNI officers later this month to discuss what more can be done to tackle the supply and sale of drugs across the Province.

“Drugs are an absolute cancer in our community and not enough is being done to clamp down on it,” he said. “But Dr McBride’s suggestion smacks of a system which is in desperation because there is so much drug availability.

“We are allowing people to become addicted to drugs because they are so freely available.”

He said more needs to be done to crack down on drug dealers and hit them with tougher punishments.

Asked if he would rule out the provision of consumption rooms as a way of helping tackle the drug problem, the Lagan Valley MLA added: “I am unconvinced at this stage that that is the right way forward.”

• Charity staff ‘saving lives’

Extern says its staff have saved the lives of more than 50 drug users in Belfast in the past year.

The charity has helped 58 people by administering Naloxone – a drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

From its new services hub on Royal Avenue, teams work to support people with drug and alcohol addictions, and mental health issues. The charity also provides assistance to homeless people, refugees and others.

According to the NI Statistics and Research Agency, there has been a 98% increase in the number of men dying from drug-related causes in Northern Ireland in the past 10 years.