Britain examines success of drug 'shooting galleries'

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The sprawling shanty town of Las Barranquillas is a dusty 20-minute walk along a bumpy dirt track from the nearest bus stop on Madrid's southern fringes.

The sprawling shanty town of Las Barranquillas is a dusty 20-minute walk along a bumpy dirt track from the nearest bus stop on Madrid's southern fringes.

It is also the nearest thing Europe has to a state- sanctioned drug hypermarket. Up to 5,000 Spaniards come every day to buy heroin and cocaine from a dealer's slum. Whatever the hour, people trail by on foot; many bent double. Others arrive in unofficial taxis driven by drug users who charge a fare equal to the price of a dose.

The narcosala, or shooting gallery, has been such a success that on Thursday an emergency shelter will open, offering hot showers, beds, a laundry and food for up to 200 homeless users more accustomed to shooting up in the street. Such "shooting galleries" are being examined by the authorities in Britain. This week, chief constables and the Superintendents' Association backed the setting up of rooms where addicts can test the quality of a drug and inject in hygienic conditions under medical care.

In Las Barranquillas, amid shanties made out of rubbish, with no running water and electricity tapped illegally from a distant mains cable, the local authorities offer users the chance to buy drugs safe in the knowledge that minimum conditions of health and safety will be met.

"The centre is designed to offer help in this terrible environment. We have to be here to offer these people some dignity and try to help them escape from this underworld if they want to," said Jose Manuel Torrecillo, director of Madrid's anti-drug agency, which set up the scheme.

Juan Carlos, 32, has been injecting heroin for 15 years. Despairing of finding a vein in his limbs, he has been shooting into his groin. The doctor at the centre tried to help him find a vein, and showed him to a private room with distilled water, a disposable syringe, antiseptic wipes, a spoon and a lighter.

The pioneering experiment, introduced in May last year, offers 10 cubicles where users can inject themselves with fresh syringes, analyse the quality of their drug dose and take advice from doctors, nurses and social workers on hand-to-treat sores, infections, bronchitis, pneumonia and dehydration.

The centre provides resuscitation for those who overdose. Inaki Arrieta, one of the five doctors, said that of nearly 200 overdoses treated, "most would have ended up dead if we hadn't been here".

Health workers go among the shanties handing out syringes and condoms. Dr Torrecillo said: "It's a question of public health. We need to provide not just somewhere where they can inject safely, but where people totally marginalised from society have access to health care that is the right of every Spaniard."

After a slow start among people suspicious of the authorities, the 24-hour drug rooms have become accepted throughout Las Barranquillas.

Ramon Mayoral is old at 30, has hepatitis, tuberculosis and is HIV positive. He is a machaca, someone so far gone that he lives only to shoot up, running dealers' errands in exchange for a line, insulted even by children. He clings to life by selling syringes at 80p each.

Apart from the infections transmitted by used syringes, cases of malaria and even dengue fever have occurred in Las Barranquillas, which the health services fear could spread to the general public.

Other than that, the shooting gallery has achieved its modest aims. "We cannot improve the situation of drug dependency. But for those who cannot change their habits we can at least improve the conditions in which they inject, and reduce the risk of overdose and infections," Dr Torrecillo said.

Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, the conservative regional President, pressed ahead with the scheme amid misgivings from his own Popular Party. "We believe addicts are not criminals but ill; our aim is to save lives, and bring as many people as possible into the healthcare network," he said.

In Britain, the Home Office refused to rule out the idea of shooting galleries, insisting that while there were no plans to set any up "at the moment", officials were "watching with interest" the use of heroin injecting rooms in countries including Spain and Germany.

Such rooms are part of a wider debate on drugs in Britain that has seen calls for a radical shift in policy from sections of the police force.

After moves to warn rather than arrest people for cannabis possession, the commander of the south London borough of Lambeth had also adopted a low-key approach to the rave drug ecstasy.

Proposals for a more liberal approach to ecstasy possession were backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers this week, with chief constables supporting the downgrading of the drug from class A to class B.

However, Brian Paddick, Lambeth's commander, was swiftly and publicly rebuked by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner for saying that arresting people with small quantities of the drug was a "waste of resources", and the Government certainly seems unwilling to move so swiftly on harder drugs.

Whether it has the courage to follow Spain's pragmatic approach to the problem remains to be seen.