UK addicts may be given free foil for 'safer' heroin smoking
UK authorities could give out free foil to protect heroin addicts' health
Heroin addicts could be given free aluminium foil to encourage them to smoke rather than inject the class A drug under plans being considered by government advisers.
Drug treatment experts say that inhaling heroin instead of injecting reduces a user's risk of contracting HIV and Hepatitis C. An addict heats a blob of heroin on the foil in a process known as "chasing the dragon".
The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is examining whether the law should be changed to allow Britain's 300,000 problem drug users to receive foil as a way of protecting their health. Since last year, the ACMD's 31 members, who advise the Home Office, have been considering whether section 9A of the Misuse of Drugs act, governing "paraphernalia" or equipment used in the consumption of illicit substances, should be amended to allow the UK's network of needle exchanges to supply foil. At present, it prohibits the supply of "articles to be used for the preparation or consumption of illicit drugs".
Critics say the ban endangers users' health because most drug workers are too afraid of being prosecuted to risk giving out something that many see as a sensible harm-reduction measure. An estimated 100 of England's 1,300 needle exchanges already defy the law by providing foil. Some have even had tacit support in the form of "letters of comfort" from their local police force, such as Avon and Somerset, which emphasises that it does not see the pursuit of section 9A as a priority.
The ACMD's technical committee has held two private evidence-gathering sessions on the subject with with Jamie Bridge of the International Harm Reduction Association, which backs legalisation, and drugs treatment researchers Neil Hunt and Rachael Pizzey. It is due to hear on 29 October from veteran Dutch drugs worker John-Peter Kools, who has issued foil in the Netherlands. Both Holland and Spain issue foil through needle exchanges without any major problems.
The full ACMD is to debate the issue in November and is expected to suggest setting up a pilot study on the effects of foil provision. It hopes to advise ministers of its views soon – possibly before the end of the year – on whether the law should be changed. Bridge said: "Smoking drugs is by no means safe, but is a great deal safer than injecting drugs – which is particularly associated with overdose, blood-borne viruses, drug-related litter, greater dependency, abscesses and vein damage.
"The law has unintentionally put us in a strange position whereby we can give someone clean needles to inject with, but we face arrest for giving them aluminium foil to smoke with. Providing foil in this way is such a common-sense approach – with huge potential benefits and little opposition or potential costs – that we hope the law will change soon." Significantly, the Association of Chief Police Officers, which represents the country's most senior officers, is neutral on whether the law should be amended. But it would support a change if the ACMD recommended such a move on public health grounds, sources told the Observer.
Harry Shapiro of Drugscope, which represents 800 drug projects, said: "It's important to do everything possible to discourage Britain's 300,000 problem drug users from injecting their drugs, and we should allow injecting heroin users to be provided with foil as part of a harm-reduction programme. As the law now stands users' health is being compromised and it would be better if section 9A was repealed."
But James Brokenshire, the Conservative shadow home affairs minister, said: "I'm cautious about these sort of moves, which progress harm reduction rather than focus on getting people drug-free. In recent years there has been insufficient focus on getting people off drugs and too much on just maintaining people on drugs through methadone and other measures.
"I would need to be swayed that there are clear and compelling public health arguments to make such a change [in the law]. I want to promote abstinence-based rehabilitation. There needs to be a greater emphasis in getting people off their drug habit rather than maintaining their addiction."
Paul Hayes, the chief executive of the NHS's National Treatment Agency, which funds drug treatment, said: "Any way of using heroin is dangerous and likely to lead to addiction. However, injecting the drug is far more dangerous than other means of ingestion, such as smoking. Currently, the provision of foil is not legal. The NTA cannot advise drug treatment services to follow a course of action which is illegal and could have adverse consequences for provider services."
Denis Campbell, health correspondent
The Observer, Sunday 20 September 2009