Scotland’s top legal official has indicated her support for drug consumption rooms (DCRs), in defiance of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is ardently opposed to the potentially life-saving measures.
Support from the Scottish government, police and doctors shows Scotland is inching towards sanctioning the facilities in a bid to reduce the country’s record levels of fatal overdoses. If introduced, the move could increase pressure for evidence-based drug policies throughout the UK.
Last week, Scotland’s chief legal officer told a parliamentary committee that she would consider any future “precise, detailed, specific and underpinned by evidence” proposal, supported by police, for a drug consumption room, due to the “undoubted crisis” – which shows no signs of abating without significant policy changes.
Lord advocate Dorothy Bain QC added that it could be in the public interest to not prosecute “those using drug consumption facilities”, so long as all the required safeguards are in place.
In 2017, Bain’s predecessor ruled out providing immunity from prosecution for those using drugs in a consumption room, claiming he could not “alter the basic quality of the activity as criminal in law”. However, the worsening scale of the increasingly politicised and high-profile issue could now warrant greater flexibility; the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh recently urged for their introduction to help abate the deadly crisis. However, there are fears that legal action could potentially stymie the introduction of safer consumption facilities.
“The lord advocate’s statement on overdose prevention sites is welcome, but we need to see tangible action rather than just simply warm words of encouragement,” said MSP Paul Sweeney, who spent six months last year volunteering with crusading activist Peter Krykant in his safer drug consumption van. “With the highest drug death rate in Europe – a rate three times that of the rest of the UK [1,339 people in Scotland died in relation to illegal drugs last year] – every minute that passes without action means more lives are lost.”
Krykant, who is now working for the charity Cranstoun – which provides addiction treatment and support services – said he would be meeting with Scotland’s drugs minister to share his findings from running the “SOS van”.
“We have high hopes things will progress quickly,” he said. “I believe the data would show a reduction in discarded equipment and acquisitive crime, and consistent engagement with health workers and treatment that would lead to less drug dealing in the area.
“Safe injection facilities not only keep people alive through having people trained in overdose prevention being able to administer the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone, they provide safety from blood borne virus risk and unsterile injecting infections which can often lead to hospitalisations and early death.”
Krykant added that the overdose death prevention centres offered a key route into treatment for people in otherwise hard-to-reach and marginalised communities. “This is a great evidence-based way to engage with those people, rather than leaving them in the street to die,” he said. “If we get one up and running in Glasgow, it could give the green light to areas of England and Wales where there are forward-thinking police chiefs.”
SNP MP Ronnie Cowan said the Scottish government was moving in the right direction and towards “more enlightened and compassionate” drug policies. “My personal opinion is that [DCRs] will happen, but I cannot put a timescale on it,” he said. “We need to wait until the lord advocate rules.”
Krykant demonstrated the public health and ethical benefits of supervised drug consumption over the last year in a converted ambulance in the needle-strewn backstreets of Glasgow, overseeing hundreds of injections and potentially saving lives after reversing a number of overdoses.
His humane approach – mirroring facilities increasingly present in a number of European cities – piled pressure onto the Scottish National Party (SNP), as it was criticised from all sides amid a spiralling public health crisis and resurgent HIV and hepatitis infections as a result of needle sharing.
Krykant was arrested in October by police officers monitoring the van, though charges were later dropped following public outcry. Police Scotland is now almost certain to support the proposals requested by the country’s lord advocate after the SNP outlined their support for the facilities.
Assistant chief constable Steve Johnson has branded Westminster’s half-century-old drug laws as relics ripe for reform: “We have to be the generation that says, ‘No, we can learn – it’s working somewhere else.’ If a person enters [safer drug consumption facilities], accesses mainstream services and starts to address those underlying issues, that has got to be good for us.”
Boris Johnson has set out his “instinctive” opposition to the plans, as he is “not in favour of encouraging people to take more drugs”. He told the BBC: “What I am in favour of is helping problem addicts off drugs, helping people off their dependence, but I am also in favour of a tough approach.”
The Scottish government welcomed the lord advocate’s willingness to look at a fresh proposal for a safer drug consumption facility. “As we have stated on a number of occasions, we are actively exploring how we can overcome the existing legal barriers that will allow us to progress the use of these facilities as an effective and evidence-led intervention in our fight to save lives and reduce drug-related harm,” a spokesperson said.
“It is widely agreed by experts and key groups with lived experience that there is a clear need for a facility like this, for example in Glasgow.”