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FactCheck: Do supervised injection centres reduce drug-related crime?

In Part Two of a three-part series, FactCheck looks into a claim by Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn, during a debate on Tonight With Vincent Browne.

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THE GOVERNMENT IS advancing legislation to allow for the creation of supervised injection facilities (SIFs), where drug users can legally inject drugs in a medically-supervised centre.

Naturally, the debate around this proposal has intensified, and on TV3′s Tonight With Vincent Browne last week, there was a robust back-and-forth between Catherine Byrne, the minister in charge of the plan, and Dublin City councillor Mannix Flynn, who is opposed to it.

There were a few very noteworthy factual claims, so we’ve broken this into three parts.

Yesterday, we examined Minister of State Byrne’s claim that, contrary to widespread contention, there are 787 detox beds in Ireland.

Tonight, we’re checking Mannix Flynn’s claim that SIFs do not reduce drug-related crime.

And on Monday night, we’ll take a look at his claim that SIFs do not reduce drug-related deaths.

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

What was said: You can watch a short video with an excerpt of the debate, below. But our focus here is on this statement:

Across the globe, the statistics are really clear in relation to these particular centres – they don’t reduce crime, they don’t reduce deaths.

Claim: Supervised injection facilities don’t reduce crime

THE FACTS

Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn. Source: TV3.ie

Before we start, it should also be noted that the Councillor is referring here to drug-related crime and drug-related deaths.

In response to our request for evidence, Mannix Flynn provided a summary of research published by Drug Free Australia, a group critical of SIFs there.

It contained material related to many aspects of this issue, but nothing on drug-related crime.

FactCheck examined several reviews and studies relating to the possible effect of SIFs on crime rates. Here’s an overview of what we found:

Europe

1. According to a major 2004 review (pg 63) of European SIFs (or “consumption rooms”), commissioned by the EU’s European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), five studies of Dutch SIFs (all written in Dutch) found a decrease in the level of “public nuisance” after they were opened.

The same review reported that a 2001 study (also in Dutch) tracked the level of drug-related and property crime, and disorder, in the vicinity of an SIF in the Dutch city of Groningen, before and after its opening.

It found that there was no increase or decrease in drug-related disorder and nuisance, or property crime, after the SIF was opened, and there were anecdotal reports of a reduction in public drug use.

The 2004 EMCDDA review (pg 68) also reported that police in the Swiss city of Geneva examined the rate of crime typically associated with drug use (theft, burglary, threats, and so on) in the vicinity of an SIF, before and after its opening.

They concluded that there had been no increase or decrease in the level of drug-related crime after the opening of the centre.

Australia

After the New South Wales government set up Australia’s first SIF in Sydney in 2001, a series of follow-up reviews were ordered.

2. The first of these (pg 128), in 2003, used police records to measure rates of robbery, theft, loitering, public drug use and possession in the vicinity of the centre, in the 27 months before, and 16 months after it opened.

It concluded that:

  • There was a temporary increase in theft and robbery early in 2001, but this was also seen in other parts of Sydney, and was most likely caused by a nationwide heroin shortage
  • There was no significant increase or decrease in loitering at the front of the SIF after it opened
  • There was a statistically significant increase in loitering at the back of the SIF after it opened, but loitering, in general, was very rare

3. A 2005 academic study covered much of the same ground as the 2003 review, using much of the same data, and involving one of the same researchers. However, it also tracked the rate of public drug use and possession, and found:

  • There was no significant increase or decrease in incidents of public cocaine and heroin possession or use after the SIF opened.

4. In 2006, an update by the New South Wales Bureau of Crime and Statistics found:

  • There was a temporary uptick in robberies in the beginning of 2001, which they suggest was related to a national heroin shortage.
  • Between 2002 and 2006, robbery and theft declined steadily in the vicinity of the SIF, but – crucially – also declined at around the same rate in the rest of Sydney.
  • Between 2001 and 2004, there was a significant decline in drug offences (possession and dealing) in Sydney at large, but no clear trend in the vicinity of the SIF.

Heroin Havens Inside the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney. Source: Rick Rycroft/PA Images

5. A 2008 update found:

  • Between 2001 and 2007, there was an overall decline in robbery and theft, both in the vicinity of the SIF and in Sydney at large
  • While in Sydney at large there was no change in the level of public drug use and possession, there were some increases and some decreases in the vicinity of the SIF

6. A 2010 update found:

  • Between 2001 and 2010, there was, on the whole, a decline in robbery and theft in the vicinity of the SIF, and the rest of Sydney
  • Drug use and possession was stable in the vicinity of the SIF and Sydney at large, with the exception of cocaine possession, which saw an increase in both geographic areas

7. A 2013 update found:

  • Between 2001 and 2012, there was an overall decline in robbery and theft both near the SIF and in Sydney at large
  • After a stable trend between 2001 and 2008, an increase in drug possession and use was observed starting in 2009, but this was also seen in the rest of Sydney

Canada

8.2004 study tracked incidents of public injection, the public discarding of syringes, and injection-related rubbish in the vicinity of an SIF in Vancouver, Canada – in the six weeks before and three months after it opened in 2003.

After adjusting for variations in weather and police activity (both of which have an effect on public drug use), the research found a decrease in all three measures of drug-related disorder.

Researchers also observed no statistically significant increase or decrease in the presence of “suspected drug dealers” in the vicinity of the centre, but the study offers little detail on what exactly these observations entailed.

9. Two years later, a study written by three of the same researchers explored this issue in greater detail.

Using police statistics on criminal charges relating to incidents in the vicinity of the centre, the researchers compared the 12 months before the opening of the centre with the 12 months after. They found:

  • No statistically significant change in drug-dealing
  • No statistically significant change in assaults or robberies
  • A statistically significant decrease in vehicle break-ins and thefts

The authors warned against over-interpreting the decline in break-ins and thefts, because patterns in police activity and enforcement may have played a role in it.

Discussion

Greece Drug Declaration Inside a supervised injection facility in Athens, Greece. Source: AP/Press Association Images

It should be noted that studies on this subject are marked by a widespread reluctance on the part of researchers to causally attribute any increases or decreases in drug-related crime to the opening of an SIF.

The literature reveals a complex web of interconnected factors, any or some of which, in isolation or combination, could contribute to changes in drug-related crime.

Most studies noted the role of police activity, in particular.

For example, a law enforcement “crackdown” on public drug use or dealing might coincide with the opening of an SIF.

(Indeed, in some cases it was observed that police strategically increased this enforcement, as an incentive to drug users to avail of the injection centre, rather than face arrest for public drug use).

This increased police activity is very likely to manifest itself as an uptick in the number of arrests and charges for drug-related crime.

If this happens after the opening of an injection centre, it could lead to the false conclusion that the opening of the injection centre was the cause of the increase.

Similarly, the availability of certain drugs (particularly heroin) in a certain area, can have a bearing on drug-related crime.

A heroin shortage, such as that seen in Australia in 2000-2001 , is very likely to lead to a decrease in public drug dealing and drug use (and therefore associated arrests).

If this happens around the same time an SIF is opened, it could lead to the false conclusion that the opening of the SIF was responsible for the reduction.

To complicate matters further, the New South Wales research found that the national heroin shortage was linked to increased use of cocaine, which was in turn associated with a temporary increase in burglary and theft.

And finally, there are limitations to some of the existing research. The reviews of the Sydney SIF include comparisons between crime rates in the vicinity of the SIF with those in the rest of Sydney.

These comparisons are very important, and generally show that trends in crime near the SIF were mirrored in the rest of Sydney, suggesting little or no impact on crime (in any direction) resulting from the opening of the SIF.

The research on the SIF in Vancouver lacks such geographical comparison, and also tracks crime rates over a much shorter period of time – both factors likely to undermine the validity and reliability of the findings.

So it’s important to be cautious in examining this evidence, and not to over-interpret results.

Conclusion

On the whole, our research uncovered some evidence, but no clear pattern, of reductions in drug-related crime after the opening of an SIF.

Mannix Flynn’s claim was that SIFs “don’t reduce” crime. We rate his claim Mostly TRUE.

As our Verdicts Guide explains, this means: “The claim is close to accurate, but is missing significant details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs in favour of the claim”.

It’s also important to note that our research did not uncover a clear pattern of increases in drug-related crime after the opening of an SIF, either, although Mannix Flynn did not make that claim.

This is the first time we’ve fact-checked a claim by Cllr Mannix Flynn. In future, you’ll be able to find his FactCheck File here.

On Monday night, we’ll examine Mannix Flynn’s claim that supervised injection facilities do not reduce deaths.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles.

You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here.

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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