Home Office criticised for refusing drug consumption room in Glasgow

The head of a study which found Glasgow recently experienced the UK’s biggest HIV outbreak for 30 years has expressed frustration at the Home Office’s refusal to allow the opening of a drug consumption room.

The research published in The Lancet said factors such as homelessness and cocaine injecting had helped create a “perfect storm,” with over 10 per cent of intravenous drug users in the city centre now infected with HIV, compared with just 1 per cent a few years ago.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Dr Andrew McAuley, the senior epidemiologist who led the seven-year study, said the case for a drug consumption room in the city was “compelling”.

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Drug consumption rooms – sometimes referred to as “fix rooms” – allow users to inject in safe and sterile surroundings.

The opening of such a facility in Glasgow has the backing of the health board and the Scottish Government, but the issue of drug control is reserved to Westminster.

Last year the UK government refused a request from Glasgow City Council amid legal concerns.

The Lancet report, a joint study by experts from Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and Health Protection Scotland (HPS) working in collaboration with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and the University of the West of Scotland, found a rapid increase in HIV prevalence, despite the health board distributing over a million sterile needles and syringes each year and the presence of opioid substitution therapies such as methadone. “which have been effective at preventing this kind of thing for about 30 years,” said McAuley.

“But that system has not been sufficient to prevent what has happened in the last few years because of a series of different events, a perfect storm that interacted to outdo the existing infrastructure. He added: “The safer drug consumption facility would have been a very appropriate response to what was going on.”

The study found a large population of people who inject in public places in Glasgow city centre, with an increase in cocaine use possibly the result of declining heroin purity.

While there’s no evidence yet of transmission from between the injecting population and wider population, McAuley said the city can’t afford to be complacent.

Asked if he was frustrated by the Home Office’s refusal to consider a drug consumption room in the city, McAuley said: “Frustrated is an understatement. You will never get a more compelling case for a consumption room than in Glasgow.

“To have an HIV outbreak of this size and to have a high mortality rate, added to outbreaks of anthrax among people who inject drugs and Europe’s largest outbreak of botulism… If that isn’t a strong enough case to implement an evidence-based intervention to deal with these issues, then I don’t know what it is.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “There is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms in the UK and we have no plans to introduce them.”