‘Urgent action’ needed to halt increase in Scottish drugs deaths

Scotland’s public health minister has demanded “urgent action” to halt the rising toll of drugs deaths, and told MPs he would work with the UK government to find new ways of tackling problem drug use if it is not possible to devolve responsibility to Holyrood.

Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, Joe FitzPatrick (blue suit) who is launching the scheme. Picture Michael Gillen
Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, Joe FitzPatrick (blue suit) who is launching the scheme. Picture Michael Gillen

Joe FitzPatrick said Scotland was facing an “emergency”, with drugs deaths expected to rise from 900 in 2017 to about 1,200 last year, and claimed the introduction of a safe drugs consumption room would help to save lives.

In an emotional plea to the MPs on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee yesterday, the MSP, said: “There is absolutely no question the level of deaths in Scotland is higher than I think any other country in the world. And that is why we have to deal with it as the emergency that it is.

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“People are dying in Scotland now. We need action to save lives now.”

The Home Office has refused to discuss details of safe drugs consumption rooms, whose operation is illegal under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. However the idea is supported by the Scottish Parliament and Glasgow City Council, which has fuelled calls for the devolution of drugs legislation.

Mr FitzPatrick added: “I think it would be better if the Act was devolved to the Scottish Parliament so that we can look at how that Act interfaces with our criminal justice system, which is devolved, and our health system, which is devolved. However, if that is too difficult, then I’m absolutely happy to sit down and work with the UK government about other changes.

“People are dying. There’s a policy here which the evidence that I’ve seen, which the committee has seen, would suggest would save lives. I don’t want to have an argument about the constitution, but can we please work out how to make the changes.”

Earlier Scotland’s Lord Advocate James Wolffe told the committee he had been unable to provide a “letter of comfort” which would have allowed a safe consumption room to operate in Glasgow and called for a “serious, well-considered and well co-ordinated response” to the numbers of drug deaths.

He said there needed to be an “appropriate legislative framework for licensing and oversight” and that the “scope of exemptions from criminal law” would also have to be addressed, as well as issues of civil liability.

He added that the proposal he had been asked to examine was a “facility where users could bring their own drugs on to premises and be supervised in the consumption with no control over nature or type of drugs being consumed” and that it would also require “tolerance by police officers” who found individuals in possession of drugs on the way to the facility.

He added that under existing law, there would have been a “wide range of statutory and common law offences potentially committed by users and staff”.

“The proposal... was not one which I could, within the context of the current law, unilaterally enable by providing a letter of comfort. The introduction of such a facility would require a legislative framework which would allow for a democratically accountable consideration of the policy issues which would arise, and establish an appropriate legal regime for its operation.”