The leader of Britain's nurses gave his personal backing for schemes to provide heroin to drug addicts on the NHS yesterday.

Peter Carter, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the strategy could drive down crime rates and reduce street sales of the drug. Results from clinics in London, Brighton and Darlington have shown that allowing drug users heroin injections under medical supervision could cut local crime rates by up to two thirds.

Speaking after a debate on the issue at the RCN's annual conference in Bournemouth, Dr Carter said: "I do believe in heroin prescribing. The fact is, heroin is very addictive. People who are addicted so often resort to crime, to steal to buy the heroin. It obviates the need for them to steal.

"It might take a few years but I think people will understand. If you are going to get people off heroin then in the initial stages we have to have proper heroin prescribing services. Critics say you are encouraging drug addiction but the reality is that these people are addicts and they are going to do it anyway."

Dr Carter stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity and his remarks did not reflect RCN policy.

In the scheme, which has run for more than three years, three quarters of the 127 drug users "substantially reduced" their consumption of street drugs and their spending on the substances fell from £300 to £50 a week.

During the debate on the issue at the RCN's conference, several nurses supported the approach. Claire Topham Brown, from Cambridgeshire, said providing heroin on the NHS could stop or reduce illegal drug use and crime, cut the transmission of viruses like HIV and hepatitis and provide a "stepping stone" to get people off heroin and on to the heroin substitute methadone.

But Gail Brooks, from the RCN's UK safety representatives committee, opposed the idea, saying: "Where would this stop? If you do this for heroin, do you have to do this for every other drug out there? Can our NHS afford this?"