France mulls opening 'shooting galleries' for drug addicts

French officials across the political spectrum have expressed support for "shooting galleries", where addicts could use drugs under medical supervision. Such centres exist in several other European countries.


The debate over "shooting galleries" started in the headquarters of an anti-addiction association located in the Belleville neighbourhood of Paris. In May 2009, the association, called ASUD (Self-support and Risk Reduction among Drug Users) opened a centre in which addicts could use drugs under medical supervision, much like the centres that exist already in the Netherlands or Switzerland.

The purpose, according to Pierre Chappard, who works for the association, is to “get the message to the political class” that such places have distinct benefits -- namely fighting “fantasies and fears” of those who consider “shooting galleries” an encouragement to take drugs.

Various associations and politicians began examining the issue, soliciting the opinions of experts, and visiting “shooting galleries” in Spain and Switzerland. One association, ESPT, made up of local elected officials focused on health issues, concluded that such places might be a good idea in France

French drug users go to Geneva

Patrick Padovani is a Marseille official from the centre-right UMP party, and a member of ESPT. Last week, he visited a “shooting gallery” in Geneva called Quai 9. “When we visited, we discovered a third of the French addicts had crossed the border into Switzerland to come to this centre”, he said in an interview with “And they don’t understand why this kind of place doesn’t exist in France!”

In Geneva, Padovani, who is a doctor, discovered that the “shooting gallery” actually felt more like a “welcome centre”. He described the centre as “very open, lively, well set-up”. The drug addicts, who come to the centre between 11 am and 7 pm, are particularly appreciative of “the presence of a medical team, so that they only shoot up with a doctor nearby, and of the opportunity to find a place in which they can interact with others”.

Canadian scientists who studied a centre for drug use in Vancouver concluded that regular attendance of a “shooting gallery” could in fact help an addict break the addiction. Since the centre opened, requests for rehabilitation have surged by 30%. The Canadian study, published in 2010 in the journal “Drug and Alcohol Dependence”, also showed that drug-related crime, the spread of HIV, and overdoses are on the decline since the centre was created.

Elected officials intrigued

On Friday, ESPT presents its conclusions following six months of investigating “shooting galleries”. The press release published on Friday stated that “centres for drug use constitute a tool for improvement in the sanitary and social conditions encountered by the most endangered and alienated drug users”.

The officials who belong to the association represent both right-wing and left-wing French political parties, and have proposed trying out “shooting galleries” in France for at least three reasons: the centres would be the logical next step in initiatives that already exist, like needle exchanges and substitution treatments; they help reduce health risks, like overdose and infection; and they facilitate the re-integration of addicts into society.

The officials have asked public authorities to take a series of steps, such as drafting a map that would show areas in France where uncontrolled drug use is most rampant, as well as asking police and other legal officials to collaborate on the project.

But the subject has become a thorny one because of divisions within the government. Though Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot has been receptive to the idea, Prime Minister François Fillon has said “The establishment of drug-use clinics is neither useful nor desirable in France”.

Meanwhile, Philippe Meunier, a right-wing deputy from the Rhone region, reacted Friday with a dose of sarcasm: “Why not also give them drugs and call the Medellin cartel to get a better deal?” he said, adding that opening centres for drug use would be “an easy solution, a decision to give up”. In a phone interview with, Meunier said he feared the logic behind opening “shooting galleries” would lead to the “legalisation of drug use”.

‘People are not ready’

In Europe, roughly 40 big cities have opened “shooting galleries” with medical supervision. Most of those cities were confronting serious drug-use problems, and the local populations learned to accept the existence of the centres. “That’s the most complicated part: explaining it and making people accept it”, assessed Marie-Odile Dufour, an official in charge of health policy from a town outside Paris. “Public opinion is not ready”. In Champigny, where Dufour lives, a local methadone treatment centre for heroin addicts was not easy for residents to accept. “It will take time”, Dufour said.

But those in favour of “shooting galleries” think those grievances are beside the point. As Patrick Padovani, the official from Marseille, said: “Sometimes one shouldn’t wait for public opinion to be ready”.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning