COPENHAGEN: Fixing a city’s drug problem with an integrated approach

Philip O’Connor looks at a city’s attempts to take drug users off its streets through a ‘fixing room’ with hygienic facilities, meals, beds and treatment programmes

THE sterile stainless steel bench gleams under the spotlight as he lays out his equipment — cotton swabs, a syringe, and a small brown package that the dealer has told him is heroin and cocaine, but is most likely cut with everything from over-the-counter painkillers to horse tranquilisers.

Under the watchful eye of a trained counsellor, he prepares the dose carefully, sucks it up into the syringe, finds a vein in his groin and plunges the contents into his bloodstream.

Slowly, he cleans up the bench, disposing of the syringe into the plastic bucket before walking unsteadily out of the door and onto the streets.

The man is one of more than 400 drug users who visit the Skyen ‘fixing room’ every day in the otherwise chic Danish city of Copenhagen, as part of an effort to reduce the harm done by hard drugs. Funded by the city with public money, it opened two years ago in Vesterbro, part of Copenhagen dotted with bars, sex shops, and strip clubs — and a known place to buy drugs.

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The idea of Skyen was to take users in off the streets and provide a hygienic environment, as well as offering a place to sleep, a meal, and chance to access drug treatment programmes.

“In Denmark we’ve had a policy for 25 years where we have tried to get people off drugs, into treatment programmes and stuff like that,” says Rasmus Koberg Christiansen, who runs the fixing room, a stone’s throw from the central station and Tivoli amusement park. “On the other hand, we have always had an open drug scene and a lot of people coming to this area who were not ready for treatment. The question was, what are we going to do about this group?”

The answer came two years ago when, after years of debate and lobbying, the city finally agreed to open a fixing room. Skyen offers eight seats for intravenous drug users, some equipped with machines to help them find a vein, and six seats in a separate room for smokers of hard drugs.

There is a constant flow of people in and out of the rooms, especially at the beginning of each month when salaries and social welfare payments hit bank accounts. There are hardened, haggard heroin addicts, but also well-dressed professionals and dusty construction workers.

Users register under an alias — the database is full of names of sporting stars and celebrities chosen by the clientele — and book a seat for up to 45 minutes to consume their drugs.

Their personal details and what drugs they are going to take are logged, and every user signs a form agreeing that the staff, who never touch any of the drugs brought into the building, may intervene in event of an overdose.

Fixing rooms are not a new phenomenon. The first one opened in the Dutch city of Rotterdam in the 1970s and there are now about 100 around the world.

Germany and Switzerland followed the Dutch example in the 1990s, with Spain, Luxembourg, Norway, and Australia following suit in the last 15 years.

At Skyen, more than 250,000 doses of illicit substances have been consumed since it opened, and inevitably things have gone wrong on occasion.

“In two years we have had about 250 overdose situations; some have been very serious, some not that serious,” says Rasmus. “That’s not the same as saying ‘they have saved 250 people’s lives’. You can’t say that, but there have been some very serious OD situations and we have saved lives.”

Rasmus estimates that cocaine represents around 80% of the intravenous drugs taken at Skyen, and that its poor quality has led users to become more aggressive and unstable.

Anna (not her real name) has taken heroin for 20 years and added cocaine to her habit four years ago. It’s a move she deeply regrets.

“When I started to smoke dope there was good coke in the town, but now the coke around here is mixed with a little amphetamine, a little bit of coke, a lot of different pills — Ritalin, Ketamine. They crush all these pills … it’s shitty.”

The area of Vesterbro and the fixing room at Skyen are important parts of Anna’s life. “I like to come here; this has been my playground for 25 years or more. It’s very difficult to get away from,” she says as she recounts her years of injecting and smoking different types of heroin from all over Asia.

Even though most neighbours are tolerant, the presence of the fixing room causes problems for day-to-day living in the area. “I’m not happy to live with it, but I love my place; I love my neighbourhood, and I’m definitely staying,” says Mette Hallbaeck, a surveyor whose apartment overlooks the entrance to Skyen and who is often disturbed by the noise of fighting.

“Some neighbours have small children, and it’s not nice when you open your door and some junkie has fainted in the staircase and there’s blood and needles,” she says.

The Danes are happy to share their experiences with other cities.

“You cannot make a drug consumption room and then do nothing else. It has to be part of a bigger treatment system. It cannot stand alone,” says Ivan Christiansen, who runs Maendenes Hjem (the Men’s Home) where the fixing room is based. “It has to co-operate with other services. That is something you have to focus on if you want to do this in Dublin.”

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