A new report published by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), which includes research funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), illustrates the extent to which overdose prevention centres (OPCs) can prevent thousands of drug-related deaths.

The analysis comes as Northern Ireland continues to face challenges in this area. In fact, according to figures released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency in 2022, the number of local drug misuse deaths rose from 61 in 2011 to 175 a decade later. This placed the region’s drug-related death rate second only to Scotland’s within the UK.

Furthermore, findings from the Northern Ireland Substance Misuse Database reveal that, between 2021 and 2022, 3,092 individuals presented with problematic substance use. Almost one third (1,004) of these cases indicated problem drug use only (1,004), while just over three in 10 (945) were living with the effects of both drug and alcohol misuse.

The facilities outlined by QUB, sometimes referred to as opioid treatment centres, drug consumption rooms or safe consumption spaces, provide intravenous drug users with clean and supervised environments in which to safely inject. While neither Ireland nor the UK is home to even a single one, 200 such sites exist in 17 other countries, including the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Colombia and Spain. Neither Ireland nor the UK, however, is home to a single one.

In the event of an emergency, staff are trained and authorised to administer Naloxone, quickly reversing an overdose by blocking the effects of opioids. In the places where these services now operate, support workers have been credited with saving thousands of lives. They may also distribute sterile injection (or other) equipment, which can be safely discarded later on, as well as advice and referrals to social care, healthcare or addiction treatment providers. Beyond their primary function, drug consumption rooms can reduce the spread of serious bloodborne diseases, improve communities and save taxpayers’ money, all without any increase in drug-related crime.

Safe injecting facilities are no silver bullet for reducing drug-related deaths, of course, but their introduction would constitute a reasonable and incremental response to what is an increasingly pronounced public health crisis, thus facilitating and enhancing the effectiveness of other interventions.

The QUB study – carried out in partnership with the charities Release and Drug Science, and alongside academics from the Universities of Oxford, Kent, East Anglia, West London and Bristol – is believed to be the largest evidence review of OPCs anywhere in the world. It forms part of a wider NIHR grant fund, aimed at preparing the UK for the possible introduction of OPCs and is published by Drug Science.

Lead researcher Dr Gillian Shorter, Reader in Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast, said:

“There are so many misconceptions about OPCs – how they can help and what the evidence says.

“These are harm-reduction spaces which aim to meet people where they are at, provide health support and basic facilities and keep people alive. They are places of safety and inclusion, often for those who do not have other places to go. The evidence shows when we create community for people who are often excluded from society, that is when the magic happens. People are empowered to improve their health and wellbeing.

“The evidence shows OPCs don’t just improve multiple outcomes for people who use drugs – they reduce drug litter and lead to less visible drug use on our streets, which is good for businesses and communities. Ultimately, they save money through reduced emergency-service use and drug-related deaths.”

If you are worried about your own substance use, The Inspire Support Hub can help. The Hub is home to excellent resources on addictive behaviours, along with information on how to access counselling and other support.

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