Last week Scotland’s leading law officer, the Lord Advocate, brought a shuddering halt to a proposal from Glasgow City Council to develop a safe injecting centre in the city. Such a centre would have required a change in UK drug laws to enable individuals in possession of illegal drugs to use those drugs within the centre without fear of prosecution. Supporters of this initiative will be disappointed by the outcome, but they need to recognise that the provision of some level of legal protection covering the possession of illegal drugs within the injecting centre would also, by implication, need to be extended to all of those who might claim, legitimately or otherwise, that their drug possession should be green-lighted because they were en route to the injecting centre. In effect, such an initiative would deliver what many of its supporters actually desire – the legalisation of illegal drugs within at least some part of the UK.
In his judgement, the Lord Advocate has not ruled against setting up a centre where doctors can prescribe opiate drugs to addicts. Rather he has simply pointed out that he is not prepared to offer legal protection to a centre where illegal drugs are being used. The Glasgow proposal sought unwisely to tie the proposal for a doctor-led heroin prescribing clinic, which would be legal, with a setting where individuals are allowed to use illegal drugs which would break UK drug laws. There will be many who rightly question the wisdom (and the cost to the public purse) of linking those two proposals.
It is often said by the supporters of these centres that where they have been established in other countries no individual has actually died in a drug consumption room. That might be so, but the lack of such deaths is not the high-water mark of success for drug treatment services. The rise in addict deaths in Scotland and in England shows that we need to do much more by way of engaging drug users in services. Doing more should entail taking services to drug users themselves wherever they are living and wherever they are using illegal drugs. Setting up a city-centre location where people can use illegal drugs under some level of legal protection betrays a worrying lack of knowledge both about Glasgow itself and about the life of an addict. Glasgow is a territorial city par excellence and there are addicts who cross into different parts of the city at their genuine peril. Similarly, when addicts secure the drugs they so desperately need their first thought is not ‘How do I travel to a city-centre location where I may use these drugs without fear of prosecution?’ but ‘Where is the needle that will enable me to inject now?’ It is for both of those reasons that we should be talking about how to take services to the addicts rather than how to get the addicts to go to the services.
Glasgow’s addiction services have been slow to adopt a focus on recovery, and even to date they are unable to report how many drug users they have treated have managed to overcome their addiction – this despite having a strategy which for the last ten years has emphasised the importance of enabling drug users to become drug-free. That strategy is now being reviewed by the Scottish Government with the real risk that the commitment to abstinence-based recovery will be diluted in preference to the much woollier goal of seeking to reduce the harm associated with addicts’ continued drug use.
Within Scotland we spend more than £100million a year on drug treatment. We should be asking why our services seem to be achieving so little in terms of getting addicts into long-term recovery and why, in the face of that failure, public officials are seeking to promote centres where illegal drug use can take place without fear of prosecution. Injecting on the streets is a terrible reality but the response to that problem should not be the provision of a centre where injecting can occur beyond public view, but actively to discourage injecting at all.
The reason we need to be doing much more to discourage drug injecting is because the substances addicts are injecting are often manufactured, stored, and transported in dreadfully unhygienic conditions with the result that they often contain serious and potentially fatal bacterial contaminants. These drugs do not become safe when they are used in a drug consumption room, but remain harmful wherever they are injected. We need to do all we can to discourage drug use, to discourage injecting, and to ensure that as many addicts as possible are in contact with services focused on assisting their recovery. We need to be very wary of developing initiatives that run the real risk of normalising illegal drug use and driving a possible further increase in the number of people using illegal drugs.
Professor Neil McKeganey is Director of the Centre for Substance Use Research, Glasgow