Scotland continues to see a rise in drug related deaths. In 2018, the death toll rose by a staggering 27 percent to a figure of 1,187. We now have the unenviable title of having the worst drug fatality rate per capita in Europe. Scotland is second in the World, behind only the USA which is in the grips of a Fentanyl epidemic. Not only are the number of deaths rising, those who inject drugs in Glasgow are now estimated to have a 1 in 5 chance of having HIV.
Assistant Chief Constable for Police Scotland, Steve Johnson, provided evidence before the Scottish Affairs Select Committee in July 2019. He gave his support to the introduction of drug consumption rooms and called on politicians to have the “confidence and courage” to reform the law with a view to decriminalisation.
With the support of Police Scotland and off the chart statistics one would assume that we would see drug consumption rooms being implemented in early course. The issue is that Drug Legislation is not a devolved power to the Scottish Government, meaning any movement on reform must come from Westminster.
Glasgow City Council has been requesting permission to open the first drug consumption room in the UK since 2017. They have sought allowances to pilot a scheme, to evidence whether the introduction of consumption rooms could help in tackling the rising number of deaths. Glasgow City Council believe that their introduction would allow hundreds of users who inject heroin or cocaine on the city’s streets to enter a safe and clean environment.
However the Home Office has flat out refused to entertain even a trial. UK Government Minister for Crime, Kit Malthouse MP, has stated he “is not convinced” of their efficacy. He has went as far as to say that drug consumption rooms are a “distraction”. The UK Minister instead states that more is needed to disrupt drug supplies.
In stark contrast Scotland's Public Health Minister Joe Fitzpatrick has reaffirmed his view that a public health approach to the emergency is the right way forward. Cross party support for drug consumption rooms has been displayed in the Scottish Parliament from as early as April 2018.
Whilst the UK and Scottish Government are at loggerheads about how to tackle the public emergency, drug deaths will continue to occur.
I have witnessed first-hand intravenous drug users seeking a safe refuge to consume drugs. I would occasionally find people at the rear of my city centre flat looking for a quiet place where they would not be disturbing others, or looked down upon for their habits. There was a man and woman who would frequent the area behind my flat as a safe haven to inject liquid cocaine. They would look at me in astonishment that I would not shout at them or degrade them for their habits. In issues such as this, we can become fixated on statistics and charts and forget the human cost involved.
By not implementing wider access to needle exchanges, drug consumption rooms and drug testing facilities, we will only see a rise in the death toll. Whilst the UK Government may wish to focus on curtailing the supply lines, it has been shown time and again that drugs will make their way to market whilst there is a demand.
Calls have been made to follow the approach in Portugal of decriminalising drugs entirely. The Health and Social Care Select Committee and Scottish Affairs Select Committee have both indicated recommendations of drug policy reform. The Health Committee has recommended a non-judgmental harm reduction approach as well as a consultation on decriminalising drug possession for drug use.
James Wolfe QC, the Lord Advocate for Scotland, has stated that the introduction of drug consumption rooms would require legislative alteration of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. He said “The introduction of such a facility would require a legislative framework that would allow for a democratically accountable consideration of the policy issues that arise and would establish an appropriate legal regime for its operation.”
The Lord Advocate also suggested that some de facto decriminalisation was already underway, where he confirmed to the committee that in instances of simple possession he advises prosecutors to keep users out of the justice system.
It is clear that neither decriminalisation nor drug consumption rooms provide a “fix-all” solution. It is a multi-faceted issue with a growing number of drug deaths linked to users consuming multiple different substances simultaneously and the growing prevalence of counterfeit prescription drugs sweeping the streets. One cannot forget that Government funding is being cut for vital social services. Whilst decriminalisation in Scotland and the UK is far away, a sensible step in the right direction would be the introduction of drug consumption rooms in drug death hotspots such as Glasgow and Dundee.
What is apparent is that whilst Westminster and Glasgow City Council are at loggerheads, some of the most vulnerable in society are paying the price with their lives. For the Scottish Government to intervene at this stage, or for Glasgow City Council to persevere, would be unconstitutional. Such is the situation created by the partial devolution of powers to Holyrood with controls over health and crime policy but drug policy reserved by Westminster. The current position leaves each with one hand tied behind their back in the fight to tackle the surging death toll from drugs in Scotland.
Blog by Conor Kenny, Solicitor