This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark.
Employees sitting in the reception area of H17 are making plans for lunch, when they're suddenly interrupted by the sound of two sets of polka dot-clad doors swinging open. A middle-aged married couple wanders in, the cameras around their necks and guidebooks in their hands signaling that they're tourists exploring the meat-packing district—Copenhagen's creative land of milk and honey. They barely have a chance to admire the high ceilings and skylights, the wooden rafters and the bluely tinted floors, before a sharp statement sends them scurrying back out to the street: "This is a drug consumption room!"
This is a message that employees have gotten used to passing along to stray tourists since H17 opened its doors in the beginning of August, and it's easy to understand why. From the outside, the repurposed slaughterhouse at the address Halmtorvet 17 looks like a newly opened art gallery or maybe a trendy office community. On the inside, you're met with 10,764 square feet of pristinely renovated supervised injection site.
It's a prestigious flagship initiative that Copenhagen's municipality has invested about $4.4 million in and could very well be the world's largest supervised injection site. For money, the city council got 24 consumption spaces, a health clinic, a restitution area, an activity room—all in all, a place meant to make life easier for the tortured souls that exist on the fringes of society.
In that respect, H17 differs from the overtaxed Skyen (the "cloud")—another nearby Copenhagen consumption facility connected to the shelter Mændenes Hjem (the "men's home"). The two supervised injection sites are only separated by a few hundred yards, but there is a world of difference between Skyen's tense, hectic, and often hostile atmosphere and the pleasantly scented and roomy hospital-like setting of H17. The fundamental idea behind the place—to create a safe space for the marginalized and most vulnerable drug users on the street—seems to have been a success.
"We have had very, very few conflicts. The users tell us that they appreciate the peace and quiet. It's something about the room. And then, of course, it's a new place, so everyone is on their best behavior," says 42-year-old Louise Runge Mortensen, who as the director of H17 is responsible for 20 employees and a yearly budget of about $2.5 million.
For users coming in to do drugs, the procedure is simple. You check in at the reception and inform the staff what you intend on taking and how—at which point you are allotted either 35 or 45 minutes to smoke or inject the drug you have brought with you. And if something goes wrong, the staff is on call to administer the necessary first aid—something that has happened seven times in the first month of H17. "Had they happened unsupervised, half of those overdoses would have resulted in deaths," Mortensen evaluates.
We're in the reception looking at the 12 consumption spaces that have been reserved for smokers. Behind a glass wall, we have a view of the ten to 15 people on the other side that we don't have access to. Some are sitting alone smoking homemade aluminum foil pipes of cocaine, while others are huddled around the steel tables.
We stay on the other side of the glass, but outside, I strike up a conversation with Gregor from Poland, who's just been inside to do heroin. He likes the new space, because people fight less, and it's a more peaceful environment to do drugs in. A Danish user agrees but is too tormented by an infected wound on his calf to elaborate. "I've dragged myself all of the way in here, so if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go in and slam some coke," he says with a smile, before disappearing behind the glass doors.
Jessica, who's originally from Sweden, is less enthusiastic. She describes H17 as a "pretty, but impractical place," where aesthetic considerations have been prioritized ahead of the needs of the users. She's particularly dissatisfied with all of the glass and the staff, whom she feels play too big a role. "There are too many hands and too few with the proper qualifications to properly understand the users' needs," she says. "It'll be interesting to see the state of the place in a year, when everything isn't all new and shiny," she adds rhetorically, before rolling down the ramp on a man's mountain bike.
Louise Runge Mortensen is familiar with the complaints of there being too little privacy, but according to her, for most users, it's been a question of acclimatization. "The glass walls are there for our safety and for their safety. In the beginning, people would come in and say: 'That right there, that's an aquarium, there's no fucking way I'm sitting in there.' But we don't get that as much anymore. Now, people have gotten used to this being the way it is. The women in particular have expressed their satisfaction with the staff being able to see them at all times," she tells me, as we walk across the colored, reinforced concrete floors that invite "contemplation, peace, and concentration," according to the architects.
Anja Bloch was one of the architects' consultants during the renovation, as well as the chairwoman of Brugernes Akademi (the "users' academy"). One of her specific suggestions was to equip the tables in the consumption cubicles with a built-in hole for trash, so as to allow the drug paraphernalia to be swept directly into a locked trashcan. "People that have been awake on cocaine for days hallucinate and think that there's more cocaine in the trashcans. Then they start rummaging through them and get struck by used needles," Bloch explains.
Bloch also insisted for the facility to be equipped with its own kitchen: "You cultivate better relationships across a dinner table than a desk," she says. "That's why I felt it was important that H17 be given a kitchen with the capacity to host eating events now and again."
But so far, the shiny, new industrial kitchen sits unused, and the sparsely furnished activity room across from it is yet to host any game nights—in fact, the entire section of H17 that is intended for non-drug consumption activities remains closed off to the users. According to Louise Runge Mortensen, there hasn't been room for any of that in the budget. "The plan is to have a cafe and activities here, and it's also here that the addiction therapists will be stationed. All of the things that we hope users will take advantage of, when the surroundings hopefully contribute to them coming here to do more than just drugs," she says.
If they in fact want to do more than that, the users are currently forced to make do with the sparsely furnished restitution room, currently populated by a few house plants and two bean bag chairs. These are occupied by two men in outdoor apparel, who barely seem to take notice of us as we pass by, and Louise Runge Mortensen stops to explain the intention behind the room.
"People who have been doing coke, specifically, will oftentimes be awake for three or four days in a row. To be able to lie down here and know that someone is watching over you, so you don't die or get mugged—that's important."
I head outside on the ramp, where users are also allowed to do drugs, and spot a CCTV camera that's pointed directly at the entrance. And across the street, the central police station of Copenhagen towers over the neighborhood. But the camera is just a security measure, I'm told, and the close proximity to the police station is only an advantage if you're not a drug dealer. "When the first supervised injection site was opened in 2010, an amendment was made to the Danish narcotics law that allows police to not charge people for possession of narcotics when they are only meant for personal consumption. The police almost always leave the users alone," she says.
So far, no new drug market has spawned outside of H17 "but we're still holding our breaths."
Even though it's been hard to get heard above the political back-patting, there has been some criticism and indignation concerning H17. It's mainly centered on the city council's decision to open a huge consumption facility in Inner Vesterbro—a neighborhood that's already home to Mændenes Hjem, Skyen, and the largest open-drug scene in Denmark.
Jesper Christensen, Copenhagen's mayor of social affairs, understands the concerns of H17's neighbors. But according to him, the establishment of H17 is an attempt to better living conditions for everyone.
"In regards to the fear that Halmtorvet 17 would lead to the formation of a new Pusher Street, it's my opinion that it's equal to the situation we're experiencing today. But the idea behind the initiative is to make life better for both the users and the neighbors," he explained to Vesterbro-Bladet.
One critic is Michael Lodberg Olsen, the man behind a number of social initiatives for drug users—Denmark's first legal supervised injection site, Fixelancen, being one of them. According to him, the municipality has created a "factory for drug users" by establishing H17, when they could instead be saving lives in other parts of the capital with less consumption facilities.
"Why are the drug users in Nordvest not allowed the same swanky conditions as the drug users in Vesterbro? And why are we spending all of our money on one huge fixing factory? When you think big, you think less about people. Is the idea just to get people off of the street, or is the aim to accomplish something else and something more with the drug consumption facilities? All of the practical evidence points to the intimate locations making more progress in regards to helping people out of addiction," he says.
Louise Runge Mortensen agrees that other parts of the city deserve their own consumption facilities, but to her, it makes sense to aid the users in the places where they're most abundant. "It would be great to have more supervised consumption sites in other parts of Copenhagen because we can see that people no longer die of overdoses in Vesterbro after we've opened the consumption facility here. But they're still dying in Nordvest and on Amager," she says.
"But I don't think it's fair to say that we've centralized the drug scene by opening a consumption facility, where it's most needed. We're just putting a roof over people's heads. We can clearly see that the capacity at Skyen in no way reflects the demand on the streets."