Shock 1,500% rise in call-outs to clear up drug needles in Belfast
The number of call-outs to remove drug paraphernalia from public areas in Belfast surged by more than 1,470% in the last three years, shocking figures reveal today.
Items including needles, syringes, foils and swabs have been left in places such as parks, playing fields, public toilets, footpaths and car parks.
The number is expected to be higher as not all drug-related litter is reported.
An increase in items indicates Belfast may also have seen a rise in street injecting, a charity warned.
The report, by drug policy think-tank Volteface, shows that between 2014 and 2017, call-outs spiralled from 42 to 661 - up 1,473%.
It has prompted calls for Belfast City Council to introduce drug consumption rooms, where users can take class A drugs under the supervision of medical professionals.
In Glasgow and Dublin, public health authorities are identifying sites and undergoing tendering processes for these rooms.
The report recommends that other areas in the UK, including Belfast, should follow the lead of Glasgow and Dublin. The UK Government has previously rejected a call from an advisory body to introducing rooms.
Street injecting has been proven to increase the likelihood of drug users catching HIV or Hepatitis C, experiencing other injecting-related complications, such as abscesses, wounds, deep vein thrombosis and overdosing.
Concern is growing over Belfast's drug epidemic.
In September SDLP councillor Paul McCusker said the city had seen 37 drug-related deaths in just nine months - including 19 in the north Belfast area - and 45 drug-related deaths during 2016.
Today's figures come days after a horrified mum found a toilet floor in a shopping centre strewn with drugs paraphernalia.
The woman said she feared for the safety of children and other shoppers after finding what appeared to be up to five needles, three syringes and an empty vial lying discarded in toilets in CastleCourt shopping centre.
And it June it was claimed a heroin addict was seen 'shooting up' in a toilet at Belfast City Hall, before fleeing half-naked in front of shocked visitors.
The Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, which provides guidance to the Government, recommended that drug consumption rooms should be introduced to reduce drug-related deaths and related issues.
The main concern with drug consumption rooms are their legality, and the report identifies the laws which would challenge their operation in Belfast.
Thelma Abernethy, director of Addiction NI, said: "Over this last year we have seen an increase in drug use across Northern Ireland and this is and important way in responding to the need. Drug consumption rooms provide safety for users and communities and provide an important opportunity for engagement with this group of user to reduce harm through a range of supports.
"There is a massive education piece to be done with communities around drug use prior and during the introduction of consumption rooms. Addiction NI will use this report to support the ongoing discussions."
A spokeswoman for Volteface said that drug consumption rooms are effective in reducing street injecting, the number of syringes discarded in a vicinity, drug-related deaths and needle sharing.
She said: "Evidence shows that drug consumption rooms do not increase drug use, frequency of injecting, drug dealing, drug trafficking or drug-related crime in the surrounding environment.
"Legal barriers can be overcome if a pilot was allowed to operate under police discretion.
"There is flexibility within the law for the police to take a reasonable approach to law enforcement, exercising discretion in the public interest.
"Pilots operating on a discretionary legal basis could then be used to build the case for legislative change."
A Belfast City Council spokeswoman said: "Belfast City Council has been working with partners to improve the collection of data relating to requests for the service to remove drug litter with more robust statistics becoming available since 2015.
"The increase in figures can, in part, be explained by the introduction of a new scheme initiated and advertised since June 2016, with assistance from Belfast Policing and Community Safety Partnership in which council now removes drug litter beyond its own facilities more broadly to locations in Belfast it does not own.
"We are aware that drugs and associated litter is an issue of growing concern for the public and continue to work with our partners to address this."
She added: "Pro-active measures include a dedicated telephone number for members of the public to report the discovery of drug-related sharps, specifically designed sharps disposal units in automatic public conveniences across the city and training and awareness for business.
"Our work to improve our services in this area is always under review."