Through the pink door at Number 11 Brunswick Square, into a homely room filled with the everyday sounds of tea-making and gentle chatter about the weather.
The staircase goes up and up, walls decorated with huge, beautiful batik murals and bold graphic posters in the vintage style of soviet propaganda. The posters host important messages: “Naloxone Saves Lives!” and “Exchange Needles!”
The centre is bustling: landings lead to offices of dedicated staff and volunteers working on a variety of in-reach and outreach projects, nurses administering vaccines and GP referrals, clients meeting with care workers, creative officers organising group activities.
I have recently started helping at Bristol Drugs Project (BDP), a harm reduction centre for alcohol and other drugs in Bristol that opened its doors way back in 1986. BDP is part of Bristol ROADS (Recovery Orientated Alcohol and Drugs Service), a service commissioned by Bristol City Council in partnership with DHI, BSDAS and local GPs and pharmacies.
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The centre operates on the principle of harm reduction. For those who don’t know, this is a realistic and socially-informed approach to drug dependency and misuse. In the simplest terms, it means reducing the harm that substances can do by providing the advice and resources for people to take drugs more safely – rather than pushing for abstinence.
This encompasses a plethora of practices: giving out naloxone, a medication that reverses the lethal effects of an opioid overdose; enrolling people on opioid substitute prescriptions such as methadone, that enable people to regain control of their lives; and advocating for safer injecting facilities, so those choosing to inject do not have to do so on the street.
Possibly the most central part of BDP is its needle exchange which opened in 1987, one year after the first dedicated exchange centre in the UK opened in Peterborough. Exchanging used injecting equipment for new ones reduces the risk of spreading blood-borne viruses such as Hepatitis C between people who inject drugs. The needle exchange room also provides a safe space in which clients can build relationships with staff, regularly catch up and reach out for advice when ready.
Harm reduction as an approach to problematic drug use is largely at odds with governmental approaches, particularly under Conservative thinking. The 2010 National Drug Strategy under the coalition focused almost exclusively on abstinence, boasting the tagline ‘reducing demand, restricting supply’.
Five years later, drug related deaths in the UK hit an all-time high, including a 107 per cent increase in heroin deaths. According to the National AIDS Trust, the latest 2017 Drug Strategy has hardly moved away from the abstinence model and shows little sign of supporting growth in needle exchanges and Naloxone supplies.
Policy frameworks such as this work to transform drug use into a taboo, penetrating public consciousness and demonising drug users as criminals. Attempting to force abstinence, by suppressing supply and marginalising people who take drugs to the fringes of society, is completely inattentive to the emotional, social and economic dimensions to drug dependency.
One of the most important points we focused on throughout our volunteer training was that drug dependency can be seen as a learned response to unbearable life experiences and trauma.
When problematic drug use is understood as a coping strategy, rather than a poor life choice, we can begin to build more open-minded, trauma-informed care systems that work in the long term.
By failing to provide non-judgemental spaces where people can be open about their drug use with trained professionals and feel supported rather than criminalised, policy is complicit in a process of social exclusion and merely perpetuates unsafe drug use.
On my way out of the centre, a busy calendar pinned to the wall catches my eye. Weeks here are filled with activities from women’s mornings to drama groups and therapeutic ear acupressure.
Volunteering at BDP is a fascinating glimpse into how spaces of community and support can be fostered by the dedicated work of open-minded, progressive individuals.
BDP present a bumper-packed spring showcase by members of Creative Communities group, featuring live performances by Bristol Recovery Orchestra, Rising Voices choir and Stepladder drama group, with artwork by Create Space art group. Taking Flight: Creative Communities Showcase takes place at Trinity Centre on Monday, March 30, from 2pm.
Tesni Clare is a young Welsh journalist living in Bristol. She writes for The Ecologist and her own blog on nature, alternative ways of living and progressive social ideas. She is also a volunteer at BDP.
All photos courtesy of Tesni Clare.
Read more: Inside a safer drug consumption room