Monday, September 18, 2023
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Denmark moves to expand ‘fixing rooms’ for drug addicts

Danish leaders say it is important to give addicts a safe and warm environment to consume drugs, and they’re calling for an upgrade of supervised use facilities.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (CN) — “It is not nice to fix in the streets, when especially kids and youngsters can walk by," said a 67-year-old drug user at one of the so-called "fixing rooms" in Denmark’s capital city.

The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said in an interview at the H17 supervised drug use site in Copenhagen that it is better to use in a closed environment where there is no risk of upsetting pedestrians or passersby.

"There are many schools in this area [Vesterbro]. I don’t like sitting there, trying to inject with a needle or smoke from tin foil, when people look,” she said. “It is better to keep it inside."

She used to work in the restaurant industry, where both alcohol and cocaine are popular means of coping with busy schedules and general work stress. Her drug abuse began 20 years ago and gradually got more intense.

But she likes coming to the fixing room.

“We are safe here. And it is very social. People know each other and feel somewhat at home,” she said.

Karina Vestergård Madsen, Copenhagen's mayor for social issues, told Courthouse News that leaders have “a huge responsibility for ensuring that our most vulnerable citizens, such as drug users, have a decent place where they can consume drugs.”

Denmark is known for having some of the best state-funded safe drug use initiatives in the world. Now, the social administration wants to spend almost 9.5 million Danish kroner ($1.4 million) for a new fixing room. It would be part of an existing shelter for homeless people in the southern island area of Amager, where 13 people overdosed in the first half of 2022.

On the political stage, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and the lord mayor of Copenhagen, Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, have also spoken about the importance of offering more spaces for users, where they can do drugs under orderly, safe and supervised conditions. The former even addressed fixing rooms in her latest New Year´s speech to the nation.

Madsen agreed that there is a need for more funding.

“We currently have two fixing rooms in Copenhagen, but there is a need for rooms in all districts. It will increase safety in the local environment and ensure dignity for the users,” the social mayor said via email.

Madsen added there are also discussions of establishing a fixing room exclusively for women, but those plans have not been finalized.

At the entrance of the H17 supervised drug use facility in Copenhagen, Denmark, stands a self-service table for users. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

In the center of Copenhagen's meatpacking district lies H17, the biggest fixing room in the Nordics. Here, hardcore users can come several times a day and inject or smoke drugs – mainly heroin, cocaine, and methadone – in an enclosed environment and supervised by medical staff.

Courthouse News was shown around the facility by paramedic and health care worker Dennis Rasmussen.

H17 has eight smoking rooms and a fixer room with 10 individual seats. At the entrance stands a self-serve table with utensils such as injection needles, pumps, salt water, tin foil, sanitizer napkins, rubber bands, filters and condoms, the latter for women sex workers. In a side room is a machine that allows users to test the specific contents of a given drug.

There is also a doctor’s consultation area, a walk-in foot clinic and a small office where users can sign up for work tasks and earn a tax-free salary. H17 always has a minimum staff of four people, including two health care professionals, according to Rasmussen. 

Every day, there are 500 to 600 intakes at H17, and the same users often come to fix several times.

The facilities are only open to hardcore and regular users. Their drug habits are initially covered through an in-depth conversation, and registration is required, though fictitious names are allowed.

“Most of our users come from a life with fine careers and close relationships," Rasmussen said. "Then, either they gradually change from being weekend users to becoming daily users, or they experience a traumatic trigger event, such as an accident that disables them for a while."

Dennis Rasmussen works as a health care professional at H17, a supervised drug use facility, or fixing room, in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

He added that a big part of the job is to solve conflicts through a "low arousal" approach when users become upset, threatening or violent.

“Our users can be extremely aggressive at times, but we are trained to deal with that. We provide a safe environment here, and they know that there are no hard feelings. Apologies are always accepted. Yet of course, we do not tolerate aggression between the users,” Rasmussen said.

He works for The Men’s Home, an organization that provides support, events, food and shelter for socially vulnerable people in Copenhagen. In his view, the Danish society has an obligation to help drug users and provide facilities so they do not have to fix in, for example, alleyways or apartment entrances.

According to Statistics Denmark, roughly 20,000 Danes were in treatment for drug abuse  as of 2021.

Even though the job can be tough, Rasmussen said he is highly motivated. Professionally, he said it feels good to make a positive difference in people's lives.

“I like to be that snapshot of security for people who struggle. They know that we want the best for them, and that our support is unconditional,” he said.

Categories / Government, Health, International, Politics

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