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A safe space for addicts? The battle over Paris’s ‘shooting galleries’

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Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been given the go-ahead to open four new “shooting galleries” – supervised sites where addicts can use drugs with clean equipment – across the French capital. But while the charity that runs the city’s only shooting gallery says they have proven effective, plans for more have met fierce opposition from some of the city’s residents. 

It is a sunny Saturday in late September, normally a day when the residents of Bonne-Nouvelle, a trendy, vibrant neighbourhood in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, would be enjoying a day in the park or a lunch on the terrace of one of the many cafés that line the boulevards. 

Instead, hundreds of locals have turned out on the street, waving placards warning of a “crackastrophy” or that the “north of Paris is going to crack”. The gentle wordplay belies the prevailing sense of anger and frustration. 

“We are not a laboratory for experiments,” declares protester and Paris resident Marie-Luce. “They need to stop f*cking us over.” 

“It’s unacceptable!” adds fellow protester Léo. “They’re putting everyone in danger in the most beautiful city in the world, Paris.” 

The source of their ire is Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and a measure she hopes may go some way to solve a longstanding and increasingly sensitive problem in the French capital – drug addiction and, in particular, the use of crack, on the city’s streets. 

Hidalgo’s plan is to open several “shooting galleries” across Paris, spaces where addicts can go to consume drugs in a safe environment using clean equipment. On September 15, French Prime Minister Jean Castex gave Hidalgo the go-ahead for the creation of four such sites – officially known as salles de consommation à moindre risque or SCMR (low-risk consumption rooms) – in the capital. 

Not one but two of these new shooting galleries have been earmarked for the 10th arrondissement and it is this move that has some of the local residents up in arms. 

Some feel that, although they are not against the idea of more SCMRs in principal, the 10th – one of Paris’s poorer arrondissements that has had its own problems with crime, including drugs, in the recent past – is not the right location.

“This is a neighbourhood that’s getting back on its feet, where I can go out in the morning, take my kid to school, and everything’s fine. It’s calm, like a little village,” says protester Federico, a father of one holding a placard reading: “Cool! After school, I have crack!” 

“Unfortunately, that risks changing if we have an influx of people who are suffering, who are sick.” 

Read More >> Wall of shame built to block crack users sparks fury in Paris suburb

Shooting up in safety 

Doubly unjust, in the eyes of some, is that the 10th is already home to a shooting gallery. A stone’s throw from the Gare du Nord train station, it is run by the NGO Gaia and, since it opened in 2016, has been the sole such safe space for drug users in the whole of the French capital. 

Inside, a small reception area (where new visitors’ details are taken down and used drug equipment can be exchanged) gives way to a long narrow room lined with numbered booths where addicts can inject. Each is replete with a hazardous waste bin for used needles, while in the middle of the room a wide range of various-sized needles along with tourniquets, used to help raise veins in the arm to make injection easier, are at users’ disposal. 

Next door is the “inhalation room”, where addicts can smoke crack or other drugs, although this has been closed in recent months because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Further on there is a space with a coffee table, sofas and a small collection of books in different languages where people can relax before or after using. Signs on the wall remind visitors that dealing on the premises is forbidden, though they are permitted to share their drugs with each other. 

For drug users like 43-year-old Kamel, who says he has been using heroin since he was 11 years old, it is a welcome respite from taking drugs on the streets or in the city’s parks. 

“There’s less risk injecting here than on the street. There’s less stress from worrying about the police, other people watching you,” he says, moments after shooting up in one of the numbered injection booths. 

“Even if you’ve been taking drugs for years you can still make mistakes when shooting up, injecting. Here they’ll say ‘watch out you’re going to hurt yourself. It’s better to do it like this or that’.” 

The problem, he says, is that the shooting gallery closes each evening at 8:30pm, meaning he often finds himself having to shoot up in public spaces. 

Full to capacity

Indeed, serving the needs of Paris’s drug users – and keeping them off the streets – is a pressing problem for staff, who say they are already stretched to capacity. 

“We have about 400 to 450 different people coming every month,” says José Matos, Gaia’s head of support and risk reduction for drug users. “Its full more or less all the time from opening to closing.” 

There is just one other SCMR in the whole of France, in the eastern city of Strasbourg, putting the country well behind some of its European neighbours, Matos points out. 

“There are 35 in Germany, for example, a lot in the Netherlands, in Switzerland. And it works, all the international studies that have been carried out show that it works.” 

The site’s medical staff, who test and treat visitors for various health problems, including infectious diseases caused by unclean equipment such as HIV and hepatitis, say they are under similar strain. 

“At the moment we can’t meet the demand,” says Simon Bringier, who heads up the infirmary. “Before Covid we had 400 people coming a day and it was very, very complicated to take care of everyone. I think we would have something to gain in terms of public health by increasing capacity.” 

Paris’s crack problem 

But it is the inhalation room that, before its Covid-enforced closure, was in highest demand, says Matos. And perhaps this is no surprise given Paris’s recent travails with dealing with crack addiction in the city. 

Despite a €9 million anti-crack-plan implemented three years ago, the drug continues to be a visible presence on the city’s streets and in its parks, particularly in the northeast of the capital, and a recent government-backed report found that crack users in the wider Paris region currently number around 13,000.

Until recently, many of them had been grouped in a park in the city’s 18th arrondissement, the Jardins d’Éole, in a bid to keep them off the streets. But last month police evacuated drug users from the park amid growing anger from local residents. Since then, the problem has only been shifted to another part of the city

SCMRs could provide a long-term solution, say their proponents, and the French government seems to agree. Last week, echoing Hidalgo, French health minister Olivier Véran announced plans to open up two new SCMRs in France every year, albeit under the new name of recovery/addiction centres. 

Safer streets 

Even France’s limited experimentation with SCMRs so far has delivered promising results. 

According to a study released earlier this year by the country’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research into the impact of the Paris and Strasbourg sites, those who visit SCMRs are less likely to overdose, contract infectious diseases such as HIV and even commit crimes. 

As such, local residents should have nothing to fear if a new shooting gallery opens up on their doorstep, says Matos. 

“In this neighbourhood, the chief of police regularly says there’s much less of a security issue compared to before,” says Gaia’s Matos. “There’s fewer syringes in the street, so even when it comes to the public’s peace of mind it has an impact. It takes people off the street. ” 

But despite such arguments, finding areas of the city where new SCMRs will not be met with vociferous rejection is likely to prove a challenge. Already, Paris officials have had to abandon one proposed site in the 20th arrondissement after local residents complained it was close to a school. 

And those protesting recently on the streets of the 10th arrondissement will be hoping their own strong objections will have a similar result. 

“If indeed shooting galleries promote – as I’ve heard them say on television – understanding and solidarity, then let those people who think they know what’s best for others practise it themselves,” said protester Marie-Luce, struggling to contain her anger. 

“Put a shooting gallery where they live, if they want a shooting gallery, put it next to City Hall!”  

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The Groucho

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