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The Daily Telegraph, May 24, 2006
by Sarah Womack, Social Affairs Correspondent
The Tories tentatively supported calls yesterday for the Government to set up special centres where heroin addicts could legally inject themselves.
In a surprise move, Edward Garnier, the shadow home affairs minister, said: "We do not rule out [these] recommendations. If this is to take place in a controlled environment and is to be used as a stepping stone to actually getting people off drugs, we will look at this carefully."
His reaction surprised groups such as Civitas, the Right-of-centre think-tank, and the Tories' political opponents because of the anticipated public reaction to it and because the issue of drugs has stalked David Cameron, the Conservative leader, since the party's leadership race.
Last October Mr Cameron urged media restraint over a newspaper article disclosing that a relative had received treatment for heroin addiction, and he came under intense pressure himself to say if he had ever taken drugs.
He refused to answer the question, saying politicians were "only human" and everyone was allowed to "err and stray" in the past. Later, he confirmed that he had not taken class A drugs "as an MP".
The Tories promised to make fighting drugs the top priority in their tough line against crime. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, told the Tory conference: "Some people say we have lost the war on drugs, I say we have not begun to fight it."
The Home Office stuck to safer ground yesterday, arguing that "drug consumption rooms" could increase localised drug dealing and crime.
There are about 65 so-called "shooting galleries" in Australia, Canada and across Europe. In 2002 Mr Cameron was a member of a Parliamentary committee that said the Government should set up a trial of drug rooms but the plan was rejected over concerns about their legality, public opinion and crime.
Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister, said the Government's position was unchanged. "The reasons for rejecting it in 2002 are as valid today - the risk of an increase in localised dealing, anti-social behaviour and acquisitive crime," he said.
But the DrugScope charity, which campaigns to shape drugs policy, welcomed the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report and said it hoped for a rational debate. "A policy which can save lives deserves serious consideration, however controversial it may seem at first," said Martin Barnes, the charity's chief executive.
The proposal for "drug consumption rooms" was made by an independent group which said that allowing users to inject in a safe and hygienic environment would improve their health and reduce the risk of fatal overdoses.
The 11-strong panel behind the report was chaired by Dame Ruth Runciman. Members included Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, Det Supt Kevin Green, of the Metropolitan police, and health workers.
Lady Runciman said: "While millions of drug injections have taken place in drug consumption rooms abroad, no one has died yet from an overdose. In short, lives could be saved."
Her report says that in a typical drug consumption room, if a person has problems injecting a drug, a trained member of staff can give advice.
It is detail such as this - and the idea that it would make a fundamentally illegal activity, legal - which makes the proposal so controversial, and raises issues of legal and ethical principle.