“Remember, try not to stare,” warned my Danish language and culture professor as we walked through the front entrance of Det Sociale Hus (the Social House), the largest drug consumption center in Denmark. I had little time to process her statement—seconds later I was watching several men smoking what I learned later was crack cocaine and heroin. My professor and I were maybe 50 feet away from the men, who were separated from us by a glass barrier. I could see what they were doing quite clearly. That was the point.
Each day, about 200 drug addicts visit the Social House, where they can obtain tin foil, sterile needles, and other supplies needed to inject or smoke whatever drug they brought with them. They are monitored by staff members and nurses, who will tend to them if they overdose, have an infection, or are in need of some other form of medical care. A doctor visits once a week and will, if necessary, prescribe medication, which the Social House will purchase and store.
At a surface level, the primary objective of the Social House is harm reduction. By providing sterile equipment, the center reduces the spread of disease, such as hepatitis C and HIV. Moreover, the center prevents deaths from overdose. In the four years since the Municipality of Copenhagen granted permission for the opening of publicly-funded drug consumption centers, no user has passed away from taking a drug within the walls of a drug consumption center.
In a broader sense, the Social House is a manifestation of the Danish welfare state. In Danish society, it is the public’s responsibility to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. Moreover, the Social House exemplifies the nuances of the Danish welfare system, which is known for producing equality of the highest standards. For example, the Social House helps ensure equal and universal healthcare, which is one of the most valued components of the Danish welfare system.
During my visit to the Social House, I was surprised to learn that many of the users who visit each day are not ethnically Danish. In fact, many people commute less than an hour from Sweden, where the use of illegal drugs is heavily criminalized. My immediate thought was, “Why is it the Danish state’s responsibility to provide these services to non-citizens who don’t pay taxes?”
Although there is no single answer to this question, I learned that there are a variety of reasons why the Social House does not require users to be ethnically Danish. For example, the existence of the Social House means that there are less drug users on the streets of Copenhagen, which is in the interest of the city’s residents. More importantly, the Social House prides itself on providing anonymous services. If users were required to provide personal information, such as their personal identification number, it is likely that many would not come to the Social House out of caution.
In Danish society, it is important that the welfare state reaches as many of Denmark’s marginalized citizens as possible. One staff member of the Social House explained that the welfare state is so ingrained in Danish culture that the existence of a drug user may indicate a failure in the welfare system. This is because it is the state’s responsibility to take care of all of its citizens. If someone has turned to drugs as a form of self-medication for some hardship, perhaps it is the fault of the state for not stepping in sooner.
As I left the Social House, I found it easier not to stare than when I first entered the facility. Perhaps this is because I saw firsthand how the center humanizes drug users, who, in the eyes of the Danish state, are people who deserve just as much respect as anyone else. I walked out at the same time as one of the addicts. He smiled at my professor and me, before continuing his day like any other person walking the streets of Copenhagen.