Politics

Safer drug consumption rooms that reduce overdose deaths green-lit by Scotland's top lawyer

Campaigners say the facilities, which have been shown to reduce drug deaths, should be introduced without delay

Image: B.A.D/flickr

The path is clear for the UK’s first safe drug consumption room, campaigners say, after a landmark decision from Scotland’s chief public prosecutor.

Dorothy Bain, the Scottish Lord Advocate, said it would not be in the public interest to prosecute drug users for possession while they were in a designated room.

Attempts to introduce the facilities have previously been blocked by the Home Office, but with Scotland’s rate of drug deaths among the highest in Europe, the SNP government has been looking for a solution.

Research shows the facilities can reduce overdose deaths as well as drug-related litter.

“On the basis of the information I have been provided, I would be prepared to publish a prosecution policy that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute drug users for simple possession offences committed within a pilot safer drugs consumption facility,” said Dorothy Bain KC.

In a letter to the Scottish parliament, Bain added: “I wish to be clear that any statement of prosecution policy does not, and could not, represent legalisation of drugs or decriminalisation of the offence of being in possession of a controlled substance.“

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Scotland invested more than £250 million in addiction services in 2021 after drug deaths reached record levels. In 2022, deaths decreased by 20%, but remained the highest in the UK and Europe.

Rates of drug deaths in Scotland remain three times higher than 30 years ago, with opioids including heroin responsible for more than 80% of the 1,051 deaths in 2022.

The Scottish government wants drug possession for personal use to be decriminalised, but does not have the power to do so.

A previous attempt to introduce trial safe consumption rooms in 2016 was not supported by the Lord Advocate at the time and was rejected by the UK government.

The Westminster-based Home Affairs Committee said in August that drug laws should be devolved to let Scotland trial consumption rooms.

Campaigners say Bain’s announcement paves the way for the “tried and tested” facilities.

“We welcome the Lord Advocate’s announcement which should lead the way for the first facility of this kind in the UK. The announcement clarifies that the Scottish Prosecution Services would not prosecute people coming to this facility, which will provide much needed health and social interventions,” André Gomes, communications lead at Release, told The Big Issue.

“Scotland has recorded an unprecedented number of drug-related deaths, so it is great to see the government follow the global evidence by introducing drug consumption rooms, which are proven to reduce overdoses and save lives. Facilities like this exist in 16 countries; they are a tried and tested method of protecting and improving the health of people who use drugs.”

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An unsanctioned safe consumption room, run out of a converted van, operated in Glasgow for nine months in 2020 and prevented nine potential overdoses.

Academics found it showed overdose prevention services could operate without “negative consequences for the community.”

Peter Krykant, who ran the van and is also campaign lead at Cranstoun, said the charity had a model which could be set up and operational within weeks.

“It is a very emotional day for me. This announcement does not come soon enough and the action of opening these sites must be taken as a matter of priority. Today’s announcement is great but in reality tomorrow and the day after people will still be injecting drugs in terrible conditions in towns and cities across the UK,” Krykant said.

“It’s time now to be brave, to open multiple sites and for other areas across England, Wales and Northern Ireland to follow suit.”

Kirsten Horsburgh, CEO of the Scottish Drugs Forum, said a lack of safe facilities put drug users in harm’s way, and said the services should be delivered without delay.

“The need for a safer consumption facility is evident across Scotland’s communities where there are people injecting drugs in unsafe environments,” Horsburgh told The Big Issue.

“People forced to use places such as waste ground, alleyways and derelict buildings are exposed to all kinds of risk including fatal overdose.”

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