MIDDLESBROUGH: Council rejects drug consumption rooms
Middlesbrough Council has rejected a recommendation that it look at the benefits of introducing ‘safe spaces’ in the town for people to legally inject drugs.
The recommendation was one of 15 put forward by a health scrutiny panel and followed a year-long examination of the problem of opioid dependency in Middlesbrough in which expert witnesses from several organisations were spoken to.
The panel’s final report said a public health approach to drug dependency should continue and said Middlesbrough could be a pilot for an approach involving drug consumption rooms.
Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston said the “official response” to the proposal was that it “cannot be accepted currently as there is no legal basis for it”.
However if this changed the potential could be explored, he said.
The panel’s own report – the findings of which were presented to Middlesbrough Council’s executive – also acknowledged that the Home Office was not currently in favour of drug consumption rooms.
The Home Office previously licensed a heroin assisted treatment programme in Middlesbrough, which launched in October 2019, although this is medically-led and only operates on a very small scale.
The report said drug consumption rooms had been successfully used elsewhere in Europe and Canada for 16 years and no-one had ever died of a drug overdose in such facilities.
They aim to reduce deaths by providing a safe environment for drug use and reduce the risks of disease transmission through unhygienic injecting, limit drug use in public and the presence of discarded needles, and promote access to social, health and drug treatment facilities.
Mr Preston said the causes and drivers of drug dependency were complex and it made for a “grim picture” in the town, but drugs were not just a Middlesbrough problem.
He also pointed to the availability of illegal drugs as being one issue and said he was on a “big push” to get members of the public to report dealing if they saw it.
The scrutiny panel also highlighted concern over the high-rate of prescribed opioid-based drugs with Middlesbrough GPs prescribing more than double the amount of medication in this category than the national average.
Work involving the Tees Valley Clinical Commissioning Group is already underway to reduce inappropriate prescribing of high dose opioid medication to Middlesbrough’s population.
What are opioids and why are they so dangerous?
Opioids are drugs which come from opium poppies or which have been synthetically produced to mimic the poppy’s effects.
That includes the illegal drug heroin and legal medicines such as morphine and codeine.
They work by blocking the body’s pain signals and also produce the hormone dopamine, which creates the euphoric feeling of being “high”.
Britain’s most prescribed opioid drugs are co-codamol, tramadol, codeine, co-dydramol, dihydrocodeine, oxycodone and fentanyl.
All opioids are extremely addictive and as the body builds up tolerance they become less effective at stopping pain.
If they are not used properly, this can lead to a dangerous spiral in which someone takes higher and higher doses as the drugs get less effective.
Councillor Joan McTigue, who has been chairman of the health scrutiny panel for the past two years, said the level of drug-related deaths in Middlesbrough was the highest on the record.
People are more likely to die from a drug-related death in Middlesbrough than they are from a car or road-related accident death, she said.
Latest figures show there are 16.3 deaths per 100,000 population in the town attributed to drugs, one of the highest death rates in Europe.
The average age of someone dying from a drug-related death in Middlesbrough is just 38.2 years old.
Cllr McTigue said: “People can and do recover from dependency and we want to see that number increase as it benefits the wider community.
“The panel are really keen for Middlesbrough to become a ‘recovery town’ and to be seen as a nationally-recognised lead in the delivery of recovery orientated care.”
The report highlighted the fact that over the last seven years the public health budget used to fund substance misuse services in Middlesbrough had been cut by half, from approximately £6m in 2014/15 to about £2.3m for 2020/21.
One of its recommendations involved further exploring drug substitute treatment for those aged under 18.
However Mr Preston said: “This applies to a very small number of individuals and pathways are already in place to ensure that this support is provided as needed.”
The report said funding for the heroin assisted treatment programme, which is run from the Foundations medical practice in Acklam Road, should be prioritised and the current level of investment continued for the foreseeable future.
Steve Turner, Cleveland’s new Police and Crime Commissioner does not intend to continue funding the scheme from his office when the current funding runs out in September.
Mr Turner previously said that although it had been fantastically beneficial for the participants, he had seen no actual evidence that it had reduced crime in the town and it should be run from a public health based footing.
It appears likely that if it is to continue those administering the programme will have to turn to the Government’s Project Adder scheme for funding, which allocated £4.8m to Middlesbrough in January this year.
It aims to deliver reductions in the rate of drug-related deaths, drug-related offending and prevalence of drug use in areas with the highest rates of drug misuse by providing enhanced treatment and recovery services and targeted policing.
Mr Preston said the council would utilise the opportunities presented by Project Adder along with the existing links it had with Public Health England.
Words: Stuart Arnold, Local Democracy Reporter
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