By Sebastian Dall & Charlotte Mackay
It’s evening. The sun is setting behind a woman pushing her baby in a stroller while children are riding bikes in the last remnants of the Thursday light, all unaware that just steps away from the lively neighborhood, drug addicts are scattered behind abandoned warehouses fixing for their next high.
In the alleyways behind the drug consumption room (DCR) H17 drug addicts are scattered fixing for their next high. A one-legged man in a wheelchair is injecting a small needle into his bleeding stump and behind him a woman, who says her name is Jessica, is massaging her leg, searching for the popliteal artery. She injects a needle filled with cocaine into her right calf and watches as the cocaine disappears filling the syringe with blood.
These people have been using drugs for years evident from their swollen hands called puffy hand syndrome characterized by edema and caused by long-term intravenous drug addiction. They are the leftovers of the biggest open drug scene in Scandinavia, located in the heart of Vesterbro which slowly transformed in 2012 when the Danish government passed a law legalizing the establishment of DCRs. These facilities now allow addicts to inject or smoke illegal substances in clean and safe surroundings observed by trained medical personnel.
“It was especially the locals in the area who experienced problems with the incessant drug use,” says Rasmus Koberg Christiansen leader of Skyen, a men’s home in Vesterbro. “Before the DCRs people were sitting in the street or between cars using puddles for their fix.”
The debate surrounding the ethics of DCRs began in 1986 when Switzerland opened the first legally sanctioned DCR in Berne. Eventually countries such as Germany and the Netherlands followed the Swiss initiative.
“It is understandable to not think DCRs should be legalized,” says Joachim Rasmussen leader of the DCR H17 ” I would probably think the same if I was someone without specialized insight, but I believe that many would change their opinion if they got that insight and saw how these people live.”
According to an evaluation from the ministry of health and prevention, since the introduction of DCRs the narco-related trash has decreased by 70-80 percent. In addition, the number of drug-related deaths has also diminished.
From 2012-2014 there were 301 accounted overdoses that did not lead to death. This reveals that drug-users in a safe environment were more likely to survive a drug overdose than those who were in an unsafe environment because they could not get help fast enough. “First and foremost the initiative is about making the drug users survive,” says Rasmussen.
In a survey conducted in 2013 by Skyen, users shared that having familiar people around them if they overdose makes them feel comfortable and that it is supportive to be able to talk to people who do not use drugs.
In addition to being in a safer environment, DCRs offer practicality to those who struggle with administering their drugs in public. For example, those who smoke drugs have a hard time smoking outside because of the wind and public attention, both of which will not be found in a DCR.
Unfortunately, while many addicts have taken advantage of the DCRs, there are several that have not. In an effort to increase admittance, most DCRs in Denmark are anonymous, including Skyen. Confidentiality is important because the main objective is to have as many people as possible in a DCR and not in the street or in an alley.
“In Denmark we have what is popularly referred to as a low threshold-offer which means we have easy access with few restrictions,” says Rasmussen.
With the grand opening of H17 just under a month ago needles and other drug paraphernalia have slowly disappeared. Although a few addicts cans still be found hidden throughout the city, there has been a drastic decrease in the number of public drug users.
“I don’t believe that by giving addicts a place to do their drugs encourages drugs use,” says Christansen.“There is nothing smart or convenient about be addicted to hard drugs. It is hard work from early morning to late night seven days a week.”
Copenhagen’s upcoming project is to open permanent DCRs in Nørrebro, another area of the city with a high concentration of drug users. “The DCRs is a recognition of the fact, that there always will be people you cannot treat. I think that recognition is really great,” says Christansen.