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Drug taking centres should be introduced as deaths reach record high says University of Kent Professor

Safe places where addicts can inject heroin and smoke crack cocaine should be built in Kent as drugs deaths reach a record high, a professor has said.

University of Kent criminal justice expert Alex Stevens says parts of the county like Dover, Folkestone and Thanet would benefit the most from the overdose prevention centres, which would have people on hand if something goes wrong.

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Professor Alex Stevens talks about overdose prevention centres

They are already being used in other parts of the world such as Australia, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

While they are controversial by nature Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice, says they could be key in tackling a public health crisis of drug related deaths.

Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show there were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2020, up 3.8% from the previous year and the highest number since records began in 1993.

Prof Stevens said: "People are dying every year of avoidable deaths, many of them from overdoses that involve heroin or other substances.

"An overdose prevention site is a place where people can go and use drugs that they have obtained on the illicit market, and instead of having to use them in a back alley, they can use them in a safe space where if they get into problems, their lives can be saved.

"These services have been running for decades in at least 14 other countries and have been shown to save lives.

"We have to accept the reality that there are thousands of people who are taking these drugs and many of them have been admonished for a long time, many of them have been punished or imprisoned for their drug use and it hasn’t stopped them.

"We can’t pretend these people are just going to stop using drugs. We can save their lives and provide the type of support that helps them move towards a situation in there life when they can put drug use behind them."

In some countries the centres can be found in permanent buildings while others are mobile and located in converted ambulances so different areas can be targeted.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has suggested these prevention centres should be considered in places with a high concentration of injection drug use.

If centres were to come to Kent, Prof Stevens says places like Dover, Folkestone and Thanet would benefit the most.

Prof Stevens added while communities may be hesitant to have them nearby, they can bring huge benefits.

"People are afraid that they might attract people they consider problematic to the area, but what has actually been found in the many places that have set these up, is that local community learns to appreciate these services," he said.

"They actually reduce the problems they’re having with people using drugs in public, people see less needles being discarded in car parks and playgrounds and also there are fewer costs on the local health service because there are fewer ambulance call-outs.

"These centres are not an answer on their own, they should be part of a comprehensive package to try and address this public health crisis we are going through."

'We shouldn’t think of these people who are using these drugs as some other group who aren’t part of our community because they are...'

There were 861 deaths registered last year due to accidental poisoning, that's almost a fifth, and 705 because of mental and behavioural disorders as a result of drug use.

Some 777 deaths involved cocaine, a 9.7% increase from the year before and the ninth consecutive annual rise in deaths linked to cocaine use.

Overall rates of drug-related deaths have risen by 60.9% between 2010 and 2020.

To take action, Prof Stevens has been meeting public health officials across the UK to urge them to consider the overdose prevention centres.

They would be paid for by a mix of charitable donations and money from local authority health budgets.

He added: "I appreciate people might be concerned about public money being spent on services for people they think are problematic but the evidence shows they save money.

"What we have asked is for the government to make a change to some regulations.

Drugs such as heroin could be taken at the centres Picture: Kenishirotie/iStock
Drugs such as heroin could be taken at the centres Picture: Kenishirotie/iStock

"There’s no law to say you can’t run a space where people inject heroin, but some offences would be committed in the running of the services such as possessing illegal drugs.

"The staff are going to be in possession of heroin when they dispose of those used needles.

"Under the misuse of drug regulations, staff can be exempt from prosecution from offences that are committed in the running of a health service.

"We are asking the government to expand those exemptions to include the running of an overdose prevention centre.

"We shouldn’t think of these people who are using these drugs as some other group who aren’t part of our community because they are."

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