Overdose Prevention Facilities (OPFs) have become a hot topic of conversation in recent months, as organisations seek to find a way to tackle the ongoing increase in drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland.

This page aims to offer a clear overview of the campaign for an OPF in Northern Ireland and where we are on this ongoing journey.

Latest Developments

On March 1st, Belfast City Council passed a motion calling for the creation of an OPF to save lives. This marks a major milestone on the journey towards making OPFs a reality for the most vulnerable and marginalised drug users and people who are homeless across our communities.

The issue of drug consumption rooms (as they are also sometimes known) was part of a wide-ranging discussion on the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster on March 6th.

Alongside other organisations and individuals, Extern is actively lobbying with policymakers and elected representatives to keep this vital issue on the agenda and ensure that the debate continues in a constructive and progressive way.

Making the case for Overdose Prevention Facilities

There are many arguments for siting an OPF in Belfast city centre. The most compelling is that OPFs can - and do - help to save lives, as they have done in cities across the world for decades now.

Despite their best efforts, the emergency services and support services like Extern who work on the streets cannot always be there, at the street corner or doorway, at the critical lifesaving moment when someone overdoses. A new solution is needed to meet this issue head-on.

Young homeless boy sleeping on the bridge

The creation of an OPF would offer a change in how people who are homeless with problematic drug use are treated and can provide an opportunity for discussion on treatment and other available supports.

Working in partnership with the PSNI to shift problematic drug-taking from the streets and to an OPF will decrease anti-social behaviour, cut down on street drug litter, and reduce the need for administration of the opioid reversal drug Naloxone by beat officers (thus freeing up their time for the intervention of drugs supply).

An OPF would also lead to a decrease in healthcare costs as the need for ambulances and medical treatment related to the use of intravenous drugs would be reduced over time.

Extern is at the forefront in calling for a pilot Overdose Prevention Facility (OPF) for Belfast to trial the delivery of this life-saving intervention to protect the most vulnerable in our communities who are homeless and addicted to intravenous drug-taking. This ties in with what we call a ‘harm reduction’ approach to mitigating the risk associated with drug use.

A Complex Issue

Since this debate first began to emerge in Northern Ireland, Extern has always sought to be clear about what OPFs are and, just as importantly, what they are not.

There are many myths and misconceptions about what an Overdose Prevention Facility is. That can make it difficult for many people to see the benefits of having an OPF at all.

Essentially, OPFs are a location where people who are regular drug users can inject drugs safely. It’s an alternative to doing so in an alleyway or abandoned building where, if they were to overdose, no one would be able to help them.

Image highlight the benefits of overdose prevention facilities

The Evidence

OPFs have been in operation around the world for almost 40 years (although they sometimes go under different names).

Many studies have been conducted into the impact of OPFs around the world, with the general consensus being that they can have a hugely positive impact on the lives of those facing problem drug use, as well as ensuring that local communities can be kept safe and clean.

Find some of the key studies here. 

The Legal Position

Technically, any OPF which was opened in Northern Ireland would be contrary to current legislation, namely Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and Northern Ireland’s Criminal Law Act 1967 which requires an individual to report an offence if he/she knows that an offence has been committed.

In Scotland, a mobile safe injecting unit operated in Glasgow for around nine months in 2020, staffed by volunteers. And in 2022, Councillors in Edinburgh backed calls to investigate trialling Overdose Prevention Centres (OPCs) for the city in response to rising drug deaths.

And in the Republic of Ireland, temporary permission has been granted for the country's first medically supervised injection facility in Dublin. This follows the Irish Government’s approval of the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2015 to allow for supervised injecting facilities.

In other countries, OPFs have been able to operate due to amendments in the law or understandings between law enforcement and justice agencies and the centres themselves.

We understand that for many people, the idea of Overdose Prevention Facilities is counter to every perception about how drugs can and should be treated by the authorities. We acknowledge that this is an often complex issue with no simple solutions, and that is why we are committed to engaging both with those who have the power to make this happen AND those whose lives and communities will be impacted by such a new initiative.

If you would like to discuss the issue of OPFs, we are happy to speak with you or your organisation at a time that suits you. You can contact us at +44 (0)28 9084 0555 or email [email protected]