Glasgow City’s drug death rate is 1,227 per cent higher than the European average. Scotland as a whole has the highest drug death rate in the EU and heroin has been the biggest culprit for decades. Politicians in Westminster and Holyrood acknowledge that there’s a problem, but have yet to take decisive action. That could be about to change as an activist is trying to force the Government’s hand.
Peter Krykant is in recovery after experiencing addiction and homelessness first-hand. In the next few weeks, he’s aiming to set up an unsanctioned safe consumption room in Glasgow: providing clean injecting equipment and medical care. And it hasn’t been easy. His online crowdfunder was shut down after raising over £2,000 and he’s parted ways with his employer but nonetheless looks set to continue his efforts.
His passion for drug-harm reduction is understandable. Campaigners have spent years trying to set up a safe consumption room in Glasgow to no avail. Communities have been torn apart, injecting paraphernalia litters the streets, and the body count continues to climb. Dame Carol Black’s new Review of Drugs — a damning indictment of the UK’s drug policy failures — has been met with an initial Government response promising more of the same. A new approach is desperately needed.
The idea behind safe consumption rooms is simple — make illicit drug-use less deadly in the short-term and introduce users to recovery services in the long-term. A typical facility provides people with sterilised injecting equipment, medical care from trained staff and referral services. Of particular importance is the on-site provision of naloxone, a medication that can reverse the life-threatening effects of an heroin overdose. France, Germany, Spain and many more of our European neighbours already have safe consumption rooms serving areas of highest need.
The international evidence is clear. Safe consumption rooms can play a key role in reducing drug-related harms. Last year, the Adam Smith Institute’s report Room for Improvement highlighted the large body of research showing that these facilities curb drug-related deaths, improve public health, and decrease syringe litter. They are also successful in engaging hard-to-reach populations in drug treatment, as well as allied services like housing and mental healthcare. Charities like HIV Scotland support their introduction with good reason — one of the key drivers for opening a safe consumption room in Glasgow is a recent spate of HIV infections amongst people sharing needles, primarily in the homeless community.
Dead people in the street
The benefits for nearby residents are clear. My home in Camberwell, London, might be hundreds of miles from Glasgow but I also regularly come across discarded needles on my morning walk to the bus stop. Chief Inspector Jason Kew, of Thames Valley police, recently visited Copenhagen’s safe consumption room situated directly opposite the police headquarters. He was told by Danish colleagues that it was the best thing that happened to the area because there were no more dead people in the street.
There’s plenty of political appetite for such a change across the divide. In an open letter, our report received backing from MPs in the Conservative, Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat, and Green Parties as well as crossbench Lords. The Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee has backed a pilot scheme, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is supportive, and countless harm reduction charities are on board. Even the Home Office has accepted the public health case for safe consumption rooms, though infuriatingly continues to insist that there are no plans to introduce them.
In the face of such support, you’d be forgiven for wondering why there’s still a hold-up in Westminster. Scotland’s Lord Advocate prevented previous attempts to set up a safe consumption room in Glasgow because current rules don’t allow it. Ministers have consistently blocked pilot schemes on flimsy grounds, with Kit Malthouse even going so far as to call safe consumption rooms a “distraction”.
One concern expressed recently by the Prime Minister is that safe consumption rooms could drive up addiction rates, despite a 2014 systematic review of 75 articles concluding that “no study found any increase in the total number of local PWID [people who inject drugs]”.
Break the logjam
People don’t wake up in the morning and decide to cultivate a heroin addiction because they’re less likely to die from an overdose. The opposite is true — engaging more people who use drugs in recovery services will undermine the illicit market and reduce overall use.
Peter Krykant’s efforts could break the logjam. Canada introduced safe consumption rooms after multiple unsanctioned facilities were set up as a way to put pressure on the relevant authorities. A recent evaluation shows that British Columbia’s adoption of harm-reduction policies (including these facilities) has already prevented thousands of fatal overdoses. There are also clear parallels with the recent legalisation of medical cannabis following media outcry over Billy Caldwell: a boy with severe epilepsy who was denied access to cannabis oil that helped stabilise his frequent seizures. Just as public pressure helped spur ministers into action on medical cannabis, Police Scotland shutting down a facility proven to stop vulnerable people dying would force the Government to confront the brutal reality of its current stance.
It’s also possible that Police Scotland will tolerate Peter’s safe consumption room. There’s precedent for agreements between local authorities, police and harm reduction providers — it’s how drug-testing services like The Loop have been able to operate in UK festivals and city centres. But in the long term, if sanctioned trials prove successful as they are very likely to, the Government should formalise the law around these facilities by amending the Misuse of Drugs Act. The sooner the better — people are dying for change.
Daniel Pryor is head of programmes at the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal think-tank