Home > Responding to open drug scenes and drug-related public nuisance: towards a partnership approach.

Connolly, Johnny (2006) Responding to open drug scenes and drug-related public nuisance: towards a partnership approach. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 20, Winter 2006, pp. 8-9.

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Although problems associated with open drug scenes are not new, we have witnessed a greater level of public concern, debate and analysis of such issues at the national and international levels in recent times.1, 2 A Council of Europe report3 on the issue provides an overview of the hearings of the Pompidou Group Criminal Justice Platform between 2004 and 2006. During this period, the Platform convened five meetings on the topic and heard presentations from 30 cities throughout the European Union and beyond.4

A central concern is the idea of the public being confronted in their day-to-day lives with open drug dealing and drug use. The genesis and scale of the problems experienced vary from place to place. The size of the drug scene can also vary greatly, from small isolated pockets of individuals to scenes with thousands of participants. This can also be affected by the duration of the drug scene and the way in which such scenes can exercise a ‘pull-effect’, attracting drug users or ‘drug tourists’ from other cities or countries. Drug scenes can also attract people who are not primarily looking for drugs but are engaging in other activities that may be associated with the drug scene, such as prostitution. Included among the problems and activities associated with open drug scenes are the following:

Drug-related mortality; Involvement of organised crime groups; Violence and gang turf wars; Drug-related petty crime in surrounding vicinity; Prostitution; Visible drug intoxication; Visible drug use and injecting; The discarding of needles and other drug paraphernalia; Drug tourism; Emergence of houses where drugs are sold and/or used – ‘Crack’ houses; Development of a  poly-drug market; Open drug scenes can make it difficult for drug users to address their addiction due to visible temptation; Creation of ‘no-go’ areas for local residents due to fear; Contribution to stigmatisation of local community; Street homelessness; Noise pollution; Attraction of young people to the drug scene; Interference with traffic on roads adjacent to the drug scene.

Most countries have acknowledged that the complexity of the various problems which arise in this context require an equally sophisticated response. Motivated by a concern to balance the general welfare of the broader community with the safety and health of drug users, contemporary approaches seek new and innovative ways of dealing with these old problems. Strategic thinking, in-depth problem analysis, long-term planning and partnership between agencies and stakeholders are characteristic of this new development. This represents a movement away from reactions based primarily on repression and strict law enforcement. Such partnership approaches, often involving collaboration between law enforcement, social and health services and other stakeholders including local communities, have faced their own obstacles and challenges. Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus that partnership working offers the most sustainable method of responding to many drug problems.

Many of the practical examples of partnership presented to the Criminal Justice Platform combine elements both of tolerance and repression and therefore they do not lend themselves to typical categorisation as either repressive or liberal. This can be as a result of the need to find, within a particular local context, a compromise between pressure groups. At given times a repressive approach can dominate the response, for example, where open drug scenes expand to unmanageable proportions or when related crime and nuisance levels attract media attention and/or lead to demands from local residents, business interest groups or politicians for swift action. Opposition of this nature can lead to the mobilisation of local residents’ groups or intensive policing aimed at removing the open drug scene. However, the experience in many countries is that such action, while understandable from the perspective of the local pressure group perhaps, is a short-term response which generally only serves to displace the drug scene to a different residential location, or to a public place such as a train station. Furthermore, the drug scene is often driven underground and, while the nuisance concerns of the local public may have been addressed, the health predicament of drug users can deteriorate as they become invisible and inaccessible to harm reduction measures, drug treatment and social and health services. In some experiences, the repression and dispersal of ‘open drug scenes’ has been associated with increases in drug-related deaths and other drug-related harms. Also, the removal of open drug markets through intensive law enforcement can lead to adaptation by drug dealers and the development of more closed markets, based in local houses, facilitated by mobile phones for example and increasingly impenetrable to police or other services.

Partnership working has raised a number of challenges for stakeholders. Policing authorities have had to acknowledge that their response must move beyond strict law enforcement and towards more problem-oriented policing. On the other hand, social care personnel are challenged to accept that there is a role for law enforcement, particularly in terms of addressing the concerns of the wider public with regard to drug-related nuisance. For local residents, accepting the establishment of drug treatment facilities close to their homes has been a contentious issue.

Addressing and overcoming community fears or tackling traditional professional and cultural assumptions by agency personnel form an important component of the overall challenge of partnership working. The ability to overcome such challenges is dependent upon a range of factors. Among the most important of these is the infrastructure of partnership; that is the coordinating, decision-making and communication systems agreed by the various stakeholders to facilitate their collaboration. Based on the experiences presented to the Criminal Justice Platform, and to inform future partnership initiatives, the report concludes by identifying a series of common principles of partnership and a number of good practice guidelines. The guidelines cover the following areas: Problem analysis and planning; Partnership structure and coordination; Communications; Trust and conflict; Training and education; Recruitment and status of partnership.

In September 2006, a conference on drugs was organised as part of Finland’s presidency of the European Union. The focus of the conference was the issue of inter-agency cooperation in response to drug-related issues.5 One of the outcomes of the conference was the agreement to create an international network of partnerships. The Council of Europe’s Pompidou Group is to shortly take on the task of creating and co-ordinating such a network.

A copy of the report can be obtained from the National Documentation Centre

1. EMCDDA (2005) Drug-related public nuisance – trends in policy and preventive measures. In Annual Report 2005: Selected issues. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
2. International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) (2004) Report 2003. New York: United Nations Publications.
3. Connolly J (2006) Responding to open drug scenes and drug-related crime and public nuisance – towards a partnership approach. Strasbourg: Pompidou Group, Council of Europe.
4. Copies of the individual presentations will be published by the Council of Europe in due course.

5. The report of the conference can be found at http://www.stm.fi/Resource.phx/eng/subjt/inter/eu2006/drugs/drugs1.htx

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