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UKHRA response to section 9a

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PROPOSALS TO MAKE LAWFUL THE SUPPLY OF SPECIFIC ITEMS OF DRUGS PARAPHERNALIA TO DRUG USERS

Response from the UK Harm Reduction Alliance

Introduction

The United Kingdom Harm Reduction Alliance UKHRA is a campaigning coalition of drug users, health and social care workers, criminal justice workers and educationalists that aims to put public health and human rights at the centre of drug treatment and service provision for drug users.

A campaigning network spread across the UK, UKHRA seeks to promote harm reduction and evidence based drug policy in a range of ways, including writing policy proposals and responses to government consultations. We also hold a well-attended annual conference.

UKHRA welcomes the recent commitment to harm reduction by the UK government, as outlined in the latest revision of the national drug strategy, and welcomes the proposal to try to remedy the problems caused by the laws seeking to regulate the supply of drug paraphernalia, which it sees as long overdue.

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Our view of Section 9a

Since our inception almost three years ago, UKHRA has consistently taken the view that Section 9a of the Misuse of Drugs Act should be repealed. This view has been outlined in our position paper Harm reduction and the national drug strategies of the United Kingdom, which has previously been submitted to the Home Office and in our evidence to the Home Affairs Committee.

We base this view on the following considerations.

  • The paraphernalia laws are contradictory and inconsistent.
  • The paraphernalia laws interfere with the ability to do important work around issues of the health, treatment and rehabilitation of drug users.
  • The paraphernalia laws are selectively and inconsistently applied and currently being used to threaten and intimidate certain services while others practice relatively unhindered.
  • In practice, the paraphernalia laws actually make little or no contribution to reducing the harm caused by illicit drug use, offer little more than a symbolic gesture of disapproval and are likely to contribute to drug related harm by omission.
  • Patterns of drug consumption are dynamic. The law prevents us responding rapidly to new trends.

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The paraphernalia laws are contradictory and inconsistent

At the moment, needle exchange schemes are able to freely distribute syringes and needles, but are at risk of prosecution should they decide to also distribute other items such as sterile water, citric acid and filters - all items that can be legally purchased in other contexts. However, if distributed as part of a process of educating, treating and rehabilitating people with a drug problem, agencies and drugs workers face prosecution.

In contrast, the commercial sale of 'King-size' rolling papers, a product with no other obvious use aside from the consumption of cannabis and no apparent health or social benefits can be purchased at any tobacconists.

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The paraphernalia laws interfere with the ability to do important work around issues of the health, treatment and rehabilitation of drug users.

Most UK drugs services operate from the premise of a hierarchy of goals. The ideal goal is abstinence from illicit drug use. However, if people do continue to use drugs, then we would prefer that they do so in as safe and risk free manner as possible. It is in this context that needle exchanges distribute paraphernalia.

Offering a wide range of products makes a service attractive, user-friendly and as such assists the attraction and retention of the client group. It also allows staff to engage with clients around the in-depth discussion of injecting practices, allowing them to educate about the many risk areas related to issues such as overdose, the transmission of blood borne viruses and injection-related trauma.

By restricting the availability of useful products, Section 9a prevents maximum engagement in this process.

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The paraphernalia laws are selectively applied and currently being used to threaten and intimidate certain services while others practice relatively unhindered.

We refer here to the current situation in Manchester, where items such as citric, filters and sterile water have long been available from many needle exchanges throughout the Greater Manchester area. However, the attempt to pilot an approach to using a contained 'safe injection space' aimed at homeless injecting drug users has seen the agency threatened with prosecution.

The only items available in Lifeline's 'injecting box' that are not currently being distributed at other city needle exchanges are night-lights and matches. However, in the last six months, Greater Manchester Police have taken the view that this puts this particular initiative 'beyond the pale' and have threatened prosecution should they go ahead with the initiative.

It is difficult for us to see how such a prosecution would be in anyone's interest, least of all the interests of the highly vulnerable homeless drug users that such an initiative seeks to protect. Nevertheless, the current situation allows such decisions to be made by individual police officers on a case-by-case basis leading to irrational and arbitrary decisions about enforcement.

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The paraphernalia laws actually make little or no contribution to reducing the harm caused by illicit drug use and offer little more than a symbolic gesture of disapproval.

We believe that the past regulation of these items will have no impact whatsoever on either levels of drug use or the use of drug paraphernalia. Restricting the supply of items such as filters, water, citric, etc. does not lead drug users to decide that they will not use drugs. It simply makes these items harder to find, thereby increasing the likelihood of reuse or sharing.

The consequences of similar policies have had disastrous effects in the past. When Edinburgh pharmacies restricted the availability of needles and syringes in that area, the policy contributed to HIV rates among drug injectors of some 50% in that city. It may well be that restrictions on other paraphernalia are having a similar impact on the transmission of Hepatitis C.

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Patterns of drug consumption are dynamic. The law prevents us responding rapidly to new trends.

An approach to this issue that lists certain 'approved' items and changes the law in relation to them, will be slow and cumbersome to react in response to drug consumption patterns change in the future.

It is for these reasons that we feel that the only sensible approach to Section 9a of the Misuse of Drugs Act is one of complete repeal.

Peter McDermott - Chair UKHRA, February 2003

On behalf of the United Kingdom Harm Reduction Alliance

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