The decision by Scotland’s Lord Advocate to greenlight the trial of a safer drug consumption room in Glasgow is a landmark victory for campaigners, with the potential to transform drug policy across the UK. Dorothy Bain KC’s assertion that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute drug users for simple possession offences within such a facility broke a five-year constitutional deadlock and paved the way for the pilot to go ahead, in the face of Home Office opposition.
But the stakes are higher than one safe consumption facility in Scotland. This turnaround has major implications for the power struggle between the UK and Scottish governments, shifting the balance in favour of the Scottish National party and its more enlightened approach towards addiction.
With drugs policy reserved and under the control of Westminster, the Scottish government had consistently claimed its ambition to treat substance abuse as a public health matter, rather than criminal justice issue, was being stymied by a Tory party wedded to its tired old “tough on drugs” mantra. But the Lord Advocate’s statement allows Scotland to go ahead without waiting for Westminster to devolve drugs policy.
The confirmation by the secretary of state for Scotland, Alister Jack, that the Conservatives, while still against the pilot in principle, will not intervene to block it allows Scotland to lead the way and demonstrate the effectiveness of its approach to a Tory party wildly out of sync with a growing international and domestic consensus.
The last few years has seen a global backlash against the “war on drugs”, with even the US recognising the limitations of a focus on criminal justice. In England and Wales, some senior police officers have called for drugs to be decriminalised, while individual forces have been pushing the boundaries with pioneering initiatives, such as the heroin-assisted treatment programme set up by the office of the police and crime commissioner in Middlesbrough.
Support has grown in Westminster, too. Earlier this month the home affairs select committee recommended the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 be amended to allow Glasgow’s pilot project to run. Its call was immediately dismissed by a party so in thrall to the hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigade that Rishi Sunak had previously announced plans to expand the powers of police to carry out drug tests and to ban the sale of laughing gas.
But if Glasgow’s consumption room proves successful – if it acts as a showcase for the benefits of treating drugs as a public health issue – then it could be a gamechanger.
It’s a big if. Not everyone in Scotland is sold on consumption rooms. Some critics claim that, as a lightning rod in the constitutional tussle, their significance has been inflated. True enough, they are not a panacea for the country’s drug epidemic, which is complicated by polydrug use and the ubiquity of street Valium. But nor are they some newfangled experiment. There are already hundreds in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada, with a large body of research testifying to their capacity to save lives.
This they do by providing a neighbourhood’s hardest-to-reach users with clean needles and a safe, supervised space in which to inject, along with access to naloxone – the antidote to a heroin overdose. They do not push users on to the streets: rather, they encourage them indoors. I have seen this firsthand. In 2021, I followed the campaigner and recovering heroin addict Peter Krykant as he ran an unsanctioned drugs consumption van in Glasgow city centre. In the nine months Krykant operated, he supervised more than 1,000 injections and intervened in nine overdoses. But he also offered users dignity, harm reduction advice and pastoral support.
The exact site of Glasgow’s proposed drug consumption room has not yet been unveiled, but it too will be in the city centre, with its 400-plus regular on-street injectors. Its advantages over an unauthorised vehicle are obvious: it will be warmer, and staffed by paid professionals, and those who use it will do so without fear of arrest. But, to function effectively, it needs to be properly resourced, and to be integrated into a whole ecosystem of services.
It is this last part that will prove the key to its success or failure. Currently, Scotland’s drugs campaigners are divided into camps – those who support harm reduction and those who support recovery. So far, the SNP’s most eye-catching initiatives have focused on harm reduction: the Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership’s heroin-assisted treatment service, for instance, and the police officers and paramedics trained to carry and dispense naloxone.
All these projects are positive and evidence based. But at the same time, there have been cuts to recovery services, leading to a shortage of NHS-funded rehab beds. This has prompted the Scottish Tories to launch a right to recovery bill, and to projects being pitted against one another. Thus, almost as soon as the news of the Lord Advocate’s statement broke, Elena Whitham, Scotland’s minister for drugs and alcohol policy, was being asked if the funding for the drug consumption room pilot would be plundered from other drugs services.
Whitham insisted it wouldn’t. But it’s not enough for the drug consumption room not to come at the expense of other services; it ought to act as a portal to them, helping users connect with the help they need. For that to work, those services have to be sufficient, both in range and quantity, to meet demand. Only if it fully invests in both harm reduction and abstinence-based options will the Scottish government unite the camps and deliver on its holistic vision.
There are further hurdles for the pilot. It needs to win the confidence of rank-and-file police officers, who are wary and looking for clear guidelines. Those who live close to the proposed site may also take some persuading. Even so, it has been gratifying to witness a growing political consensus at Holyrood, with even the Scottish Conservatives coming out in broad support.
The UK government’s determination to remain an outlier, and to crack down on the “scourge of drugs” in the runup to an election, has left the Scottish government reliant on a legal loophole to deliver a drugs policy internationally recognised as the best way forward.
For all the justified criticism of the SNP – its earlier cuts to frontline drug services, its belated response to the rising death toll and its tendency to play the blame game – it has now been gifted a golden opportunity to expose the callous politicking of the present UK government – while charting a brave new course for its successor.