Drug consumption rooms wouldn't be a game-changer, but would save some lives – Kenny MacAskill

The decision not to prosecute drug users in safe consumption rooms is a welcome step that should allow them to be set up in Scotland

Drug consumption rooms, safe injection rooms, call them what you will, it’s the same thing. A safe venue where an addict can be supervised and be safe in their taking of whatever narcotic they’re addicted to. It stops them doing so in the park, public toilets or even the street, and medical practitioners and drug counsellors can both oversee what’s taken and provide guidance and support.

So, the Lord Advocate’s announcement that she won’t be criminalising those seeking to access them is to be welcomed. That had always been the stumbling block for the police, as drugs law is reserved and even possession is a crime. Getting to the venue to take the drugs was the problem, not just for the addict but for the police.

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What were officers to do if they met a user en route? Cross the road and pretend they never saw them? Say hello and enter into a chat when they would otherwise have stopped and searched? That would put officers in an invidious position.

But this pragmatic approach allows for sites to be opened and the concept delivered in practice. It's a small step in many ways, as the number of sites to be established, users supported, and lives saved will be very limited. But, in other ways, it is a significant step to allow a visible sign of treating drug addiction as a health, not a criminal justice, issue, with Scotland leading the way in drug reform.

It’s churlish to complain about delays, as it’s a welcome step but equally it’s hyperbole to talk about it as a game-changer. The number of venues will be few, mostly in just the big cities and not every town and village. Some user still won’t use them and the number of lives saved as a result will be few. But everyone matters.

What it cannot be allowed to do is take away the need for other forms of support in recovery and treatment. Cuts in that have seen deaths mount and this is no replacement for that core funding. But it’s still welcome progress and, hopefully, Westminster will follow suit and allow further changes to be piloted in Scotland.

Kenny MacAskill is Alba Party MP for East Lothian and a former Justice Secretary