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Glasgow’s cynical legalising of dangerous drug use


SCOTLAND is soon to have something that is unavailable anywhere else in the UK – a place where drug users can inject illegal substances they have purchased on the streets, in the presence of medical staff, without fear of arrest or criminal prosecution for drug possession. 

According to the SNP government at Holyrood, along with a raft of clinical, enforcement, and drug legalising initiatives and organisations, the setting up of a drug consumption room is the latest way in which Scotland’s horrendous rate of drug-related deaths can be overturned. Its opening in Glasgow is likely to kickstart a campaign to see other similar centres opened in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and in no time at all in the more remote areas of rural Scotland. 

The road we are now on in Scotland is one where in reality, if not fully in law, injecting drugs has become legal. This is a massively risky experiment enthusiastically supported by those who want to see all currently illegal drugs made legal but causing justifiable concern on the part of those who rightly are asking the question of whether our government, our health authorities, and our police should be facilitating illegal drug use in this way. 

Make no mistake about it, a drug consumption room in Glasgow is a direct challenge to UK drug laws. If you are going to set up such an initiative at a cost, we are told, of some £2.5million a year, it makes no sense to prosecute drug users who are injecting within the centre. It also makes no sense to prosecute drug users on their way to the centre – but how far do you draw a tolerance zone? One mile, two miles, three miles? What do the police say when a drug user, having just purchased illegal drugs in any part of the city, says ‘I am on my way to the drug consumption room’? It is hard not to see the drift towards drugs legalisation that will flow from setting up such a consumption room.

Support for the consumption room has been vocal, if naïve, on the basis that it is safer for addicts to inject their black-market drugs within a drugs consumption room than it is on the street. There can be no doubting that assertion but it is important to recognise that the street drugs they will be injecting within that centre will have been manufactured, cut, stored, and transported in the most unhygienic conditions. Street-purchased heroin does not become safe when it is injected in a drug consumption room – these drugs are dangerous wherever they are being used and whoever is present.

To my mind the bigger question underlying the setting up of a drug consumption room in Glasgow is why is the Scottish Government and health authorities not investing more in resources designed to support drug users in their efforts to become drug-free. It is of course a great deal harder to help an addict stop using drugs than it is to assist them in their use. Such a transformation in the role of how public bodies respond is a dangerous erosion of responsibility. Behind the controversy around the Scottish government’s support for this initiative, however, is a more worrying question which has to do with the degree to which those who support the case for independence in Scotland see the development of a drug consumption room in Glasgow as appealing for two further reasons:

First, it offers a way of moving the news agenda beyond the near-daily coverage in Scotland of the police investigation into the possible misuse of funds provided to the Scottish National Party to support a further independence referendum. 

Second, it provides a platform through which independence supporters can drive a wedge between themselves and the Westminster government in another area of public policy. 

Time will tell whether the community in the area where the drug consumption room is located will come to accept this provision as just another health service. Time will also tell whether addicts will travel from all parts of the city to use the facility. Glasgow is  notoriously territorial so it may well be that addicts do not use this facility in the numbers that its advocates have advised.

If the drug consumption room in Glasgow fails to reduce the number of drug-related deaths in the city, will the response be a humble apology from those who have vigorously supported this initiative? Far more likely it will be a rejuvenated call to go further down the road of drugs legalisation. Scotland is on a dangerous road along  which it may come to top another international league table to accompany its position at the top of the league table of drug related deaths – becoming the international leader in the legalisation of illegal drugs. 

In that event we will need to massively expand the number of drug treatment centres available in the country to pick up the casualties of this latest experiment in drugs policy hysteria.

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Neil McKeganey
Neil McKeganey
Director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research in Glasgow and former Government drug policy advisor.

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