Glasgow consumption room demand a 'distraction' from drugs deaths crisis, says UK minister

The Scottish Government's repeated demands for a drugs consumption room (DCR) to be opened in Glasgow are a "distraction" from the wider issue of preventing deaths, a Conservative MP has said.

Justice minister Kit Malthouse speaks at the UK Government's drugs summit in Glasgow on Thursday. Picture: John Devlin

Justice minister Kit Malthouse was in Glasgow today to address a UK Government summit on the growing number of drugs-related deaths across the country, a conference that coincided with the publication of a new Westminster report which laid bare the social cost of the country's drugs habit.

It was the second meeting on the issue to be held at the Scottish Event Centre in two days, with the Scottish Government hosting its own summit yesterday.

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Holyrood ministers, alongside the local council and public health officials, have said a DCR could reduce the growing number of addicts in the city who are contracting HIV from the shared use of needles.

But Mr Malthouse said the global evidence on DCRs was inconclusive and would not reduce the number of deaths taking place each day.

"We can't pretend that DCRs are not legally very difficult," he told a press conference. "They involve the commission of several types of crimes - and that presents us with a legal and legislative difficulty.

"The evidence from around the world is mixed. Even the most successful affect quite small numbers of people.

"I am concerned they are a distraction from the main event, which is fundamentally that there needs to be more concentration and resource on innovative treatment. Making sure we deal with complex and underlying health concerns is critical."

The MP continued: "I have been involved in the front-end of public policy delivery for 22 years, and I have always tried to shy away from the notion that there is a silver bullet solution, to what are often complicated social problems.

"I worry that this (DCRs) is being used as a silver bullet - here we are, doing something - rather than saying let's really get into the weeds of what is a difficult and complicated problem and work out what the solutions might be.

"I'm coming today with an open mind but, in my view, there are much bigger and wider issues to deal with than DCRs."

Scotland’s largest city has an estimated 11,900 problem drug users living in its boundaries, with around 500 of them regularly injecting themselves in public areas around Glasgow Central railway station.

Around a third of all drugs deaths in Scotland take place in the city, with HIV infection rates rocketing in recent years as addicts increasingly share needles.

Health experts said that unlike elsewhere in Europe, those who died from drugs north of the Border were likely to have taken a range of substances - the average in recent years has risen to six.

SNP ministers and local health authorities have been left frustrated at the failure to establish a DCR in the city, which they believe would help reduce the growing number of heroin addicts who contract HIV from the shared use of needles.

Drug laws are reserved to Westminster and successive UK Governments have ruled out the opening of a DCR in Glasgow, which would be illegal under current legislation.

Mr Malthouse continued: "Even to get to a pilot represents legal difficulties. There are a series of serious criminal offences that would have to be tolerated in order to allow a DCR to take place.

"Even if it were to be allowed, it would take some time before that is all dealt with - and people are dying now. In Scotland, we are losing three to four people a day. This is a much more urgent question than wrangling over this thing."

Joe FitzPatrick, the Scottish Government’s public health minister, said: “We firmly believe the Misuse of Drugs Act should be amended to allow us to implement a range of public health-focused responses.

“We have called on the UK Government to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act or to devolve those powers to Scotland to allow us to implement a range of public health-focused responses. We have also repeatedly called on it to use its powers to enable us to implement safe consumption facilities in Glasgow, as supported by health professionals and experts.

“Hopefully having heard the powerful presentations today, in particular by Claire Muirhead from Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership, Mr Malthouse is willing to change his mind and look at the evidence.

“It is vital that we take action now but if the UK Government won’t act then the powers should be devolved so that decisions would be for the Scottish Parliament to consider.”