Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Monday, 26 April 2010 15:06 UK

Give heroin on the NHS, says nursing leader

By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

Heroin is a highly addictive drug

Drug addicts should be prescribed heroin on the NHS, a nursing leader says.

Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the move would drive down crime rates while helping people off the drug.

But the views of other nurses at the RCN's annual conference in Bournemouth were mixed.

Mr Carter's backing came after positive results from NHS pilots in London, Brighton and Darlington.

The trials, involving 127 users, showed crime was cut by two-thirds, while three-quarters also "substantially reduced" their use of street drugs after being offered a range of support, including psychological therapy.

This is not some heroin free-for-all, there is proper medical supervision
Harry Shapiro of Drugscope

Mr Carter said: "I do believe in heroin prescribing. The fact is heroin is very addictive.

"It might take a few years but I think people will understand.

"If you are going to get people off heroin then in the initial stages we have to have proper heroin prescribing services.

"Critics say you are encouraging drug addiction but the reality is that these people are addicts and they are going to do it anyway."

Mr Carter also said drug consumption rooms where users could get needles and inject in privacy should be looked into.

He said Australia and the Netherlands had found they stopped users injecting in school playgrounds and stairwells.

Debating the issue at the RCN's conference, several nurses agreed with the more radical approach.

Claire Topham Brown, from Cambridgeshire, said providing heroin on the NHS could stop or reduce illegal drug use and crime, cut the transmission of viruses like HIV and hepatitis and provide a "stepping stone" to get people off heroin and on to the heroin substitute methadone.

But Gail Brooks, from the RCN's UK safety representatives committee, opposed the idea, saying: "Where would this stop?

"Cannabis, cocaine, crack cocaine...other substances?"

Harry Shapiro, of Drugscope, said heroin prescriptions could provide an important service.

"This is not some heroin free-for-all, there is proper medical supervision."

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