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Copenhagen strives to fix drug problem

Authorities in Copenhagen are set to open a second facility where drug addicts can shoot up under the supervision of social workers. The goal was to clean up the capital's streets, but not everyone's happy.

It's a grey and rainy Wednesday morning in Vesterbro, Copenhagen's former meat-packing district, but 40-year-old drug addict Annette is in a buoyant mood. Relaxing in a light and airy first floor office in the city's drug consumption house, she told DW why this place has changed her life.

"Until quite recently I was homeless. The only options I had when I needed to take drugs were to hide in a basement or huddle behind a car - in the snow sometimes."

Drogenkonsum Dänemark

Nurses and social workers make up the staff at Copenhagen's fixing room

The "fixing room" - as the Danes call it - allows users to inject hard drugs away from the streets, without fear of being arrested.

"It can be hard to find a good vein on a drug user and often I'd have to try 15 times before I hit the right one. It was deeply unpleasant, but that's what life was like for me."

Hard tracks

The past six years of drug abuse have taken their toll on Annette's body. Her cheeks are hollow; her denim jacket hangs loosely over her tiny frame, and all but one of her teeth are missing. Perhaps her upbeat demeanor is down to her having flushed cocaine into her veins shortly before I met her. But this safe haven for addicts has given her some dignity back, she says.

"I don't need to hide anymore or be afraid that someone walking past while I'm shooting up in public might kick me and say: 'Get out of my way, junkie.' … My drug habits shouldn't be anyone else's business."

While there have been more than 60 overdoses in the fixing room since it opened last year, no one has died. Drug dealing is not tolerated inside and police are a constant presence outside the yellow brick building, keeping a watchful eye on those hovering at the entrance.

Drogenkonsum Dänemark

Copenhagen's fixing room is open to any drug addict

While the surrounding area has been gentrified, the square next to the facility has been the center of Scandinavia's biggest open drug scene since the late 1970s. Each day, between 500 and 800 people linked to drugs come to the area says manager Rasmus Koberg Christiansen.

Inspired by similar facilities in Germany, Switzerland and Spain, social workers and local residents campaigned for a consumption room in Vesterbro, in the hope of reducing death by overdose and dirty needles left lying in the streets. When a new government came to power in Denmark in 2011, funding was made available.

"After the first day, there had been 130 injections in the consumption room. We thought if we could have between 100 and 200 injections within a year, it would be a success. So after one day, we had achieved the goal. Now we see between 200-300 injections in the room a day," says Christiansen.

According to a report from Copenhagen Council, the amount of drug paraphernalia left lying around the streets has been reduced by more than half since the drug consumption room opened.

However, while there may be less dirty needles in the area, the number of drug users in the area has not dropped.

"This place is only part of the solution. Our goal is to provide clean, calm and safe drug injections for the people who are using drugs in this area.  But if the users tell us they want to do something else with their lives than take drugs, we can help them get treatment."

Public reaction

"We are blessed that this neighborhood is positive about drug consumption. The problem is that the very close neighbors are very frustrated. That is very understandable, because of course we provide the service, but the users are still here and they can be very emotional, loud and sometimes violent."

That frustration is strongly felt by Michael Knudsen, the caretaker of Rystensteen Gymnasium, the high school across the road.

"When the fixing room opened last year, we went along with it because they said it was temporary. But we were worried because we thought it would mean more drug users on our doorstep, and unfortunately that's exactly what happened," he says.

Drogenkonsum Dänemark

Authorities hope the fixing room will help restore dignity

It has also increased crime.

"Sometimes drug addicts will enter the school premises, use our toilets and computers and smartphones will disappear. Despite the fact that there's a consumption room right there, they still inject drugs right under our noses and that scares our students.  We even caught one of them selling drugs inside the school recently. Sometimes they are aggressive and it's just a bad situation for us.  Our students don't feel safe," he says.

While Knudsen has sympathy for what the fixing room does for improving the lives of drug addicts, he says the school wants it to go.

"We'll have to find a political solution to this to move it somewhere else. We're all in favor of helping drug users, but we just can't live with the facility being ten meters from our students."

Clearly living next door to where drug addicts are injecting is a challenge and the expansion of the consumption room this month is likely to provoke more anger. But the idea of giving addicts some dignity back and cleaning up the streets seems to have caught on - recently a British government minister went on a fact-finding mission to Copenhagen to see how the fixing room worked. Brighton Council in the south of England is now considering opening something similar.

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