Leading article: An injection of common sense

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The Independent Online

When the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse began its heroin "shooting gallery" pilot project four years ago, critics argued that it would result in an explosion of drug dealing and crime. In fact it has had precisely the opposite effect. As we report today, in the areas of London, Brighton and Darlington where heroin prescribing clinics have been set up, there has been a fall in both crime and drug dealing.

The scheme's success should not come as a surprise. Shooting galleries have had a similar beneficial effect on local quality of life in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany. The reason is simple: the clinics reduce the need for addicts to steal to buy their fix from street dealers. This week the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse will call for a nationwide roll-out of shooting galleries.

Such a move would undoubtedly be controversial politically, but also medically. Though the clinics have helped to improve the health of local addicts by providing clean needles and a safe environment in which to shoot up, prescribing heroin in clinics is not a "treatment" for addiction. Its primary purpose - and, as we have seen, effect - is to minimise the social harm that heroin addicts inflict on the wider community.

Yet a reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour is not prize to be sniffed at. Britain's hard core drug addicts are believed to be behind three quarters of all acquisitive crime in the UK. The potential gains here are obvious. Moreover, if shooting galleries were accompanied by a beefed-up drug rehabilitation service, there is every reason to believe that general addiction levels would also begin to fall. Such an approach would certainly be expensive, but the cost would be more than offset by a fall in the criminal justice budget.

A nationwide roll-out of heroin clinics would be a significant step, but a profoundly sensible one. Harm reduction, rather than mindless prohibition, should be the guiding principle of government policy when it comes to drug addiction. And shooting galleries point to a practical, cost-effective and humane way forward.