The Case for a Fix Room

The case for a safer drug consumption facility in Glasgow, by Mhairi Hunter (writing in a personal capacity).

Plans to establish a safer drug consumption facility in Glasgow have been in the news following reports that the Scottish Government is seeking the devolution of drug laws to enable an exemption which will allow the proposed facility to operate lawfully.

This follows an opinion from the Lord Advocate that an exemption from the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is a matter for the UK Government, since the legislation is reserved, and confirmation from the UK Government that they are not minded to grant an exemption.

Before considering the political implications of this it is worth re-capping how – and why – the proposal came about.

Plans to create a safer drug consumption facility flowed from the publication of a report in 2015 from the Glasgow Alcohol and Drugs Partnership called “Taking Away the Chaos” which examined the health needs of people who inject drugs in the city centre.

The report was prompted by concerns about serious outbreaks of infectious diseases such as anthrax, botulism and most recently HIV among city centre drug injectors and a high burden of drug-related deaths. In addition, residents and businesses in the areas where drug injecting takes place have long raised concerns about discarded needles and other problems.

The report found that the population who inject drugs in the city centre – around 400 to 500 individuals, most of them known to the police and Social Work – face multiple barriers to improving their health and accessing existing services, the biggest being the severity of their addiction and the precariousness of their lives.

These are people who live extremely chaotic lives and who have multiple and complex health needs. They are highly likely to experience homelessness, to have been in prison, to be chronically poor. Most of them are men aged between 30 to 50, who have been injecting drugs for a long time and – despite engagements with health services – have not been able to stop. They are often very damaged and extremely vulnerable individuals.

The report recommended piloting a safe drug consumption facility in order to meet the particular needs of this population and the proposal has been taken forward by Glasgow’s Health & Social Care Partnership, whose Integration Joint Board approved the development of a full business case with the support of partners including the police. Preparatory work has been ongoing but the establishment of the facility remains subject to obtaining the exemption necessary to allow it to operate lawfully.

In the meantime Glasgow continues to experience a high rate of new HIV infections and drug-related deaths – around 20 per cent of all drug related deaths occur in the city. The situation has been worsened by the very poor decision of Network Rail to close down the needle exchange located in the late-opening Boots Chemist in Central station, meaning there are fewer clean needles in circulation, increasing the danger of HIV infections.

So the need for a safer drug consumption facility is stronger than ever. But the way forward is far from clear.

Up to now the case for piloting this approach in Glasgow has been, quite properly, made by health and social work professionals whose expertise has driven forward the development of the proposal.

However, with the involvement of the Scottish Government – and their request for the devolution of drug laws to allow the facility to operate – the issue is likely to become more political.

There is, in Scotland, a growing consensus on treating drug use as a public health rather than a criminal justice issue, with implications for our general approach to drug laws. I welcome this. However a general debate shouldn’t overshadow the very specific need for a safer drug consumption facility to meet the health needs of a particular population in Glasgow. Even those who wish drug laws to remain as they are should consider the Glasgow proposal with an open mind, as a specific measure which is necessary to respond to a public health emergency.

There is also, inevitably, a constitutional aspect to the Scottish Government requesting further devolution of powers from the UK Parliament.

I very much welcome the support of the Scottish Government and the measured tone taken by ministers. There is a risk, however, that this issue becomes part of a highly polarised debate. In other words, that it becomes a political football. I would wish to avoid this. When debates become polarised, positions become entrenched and I still have hopes that the UK Government may come to change their minds about this proposal.

There are good reasons for them to do so. Glasgow is far from the only city in the UK to experience this problem and there is a high level of interest from other UK authorities in what Glasgow is proposing. There is also no shortage of academics eager to monitor and evaluate the outcomes.

From a UK Government perspective, therefore, I think it makes sense to co-operate with the Scottish Government by devolving the relevant powers and enabling this proposal to go ahead. Glasgow, with the support of the Scottish Government, will take the risk in piloting this approach and the rest of the UK can benefit from the learning before considering whether it is an option that authorities wish to pursue elsewhere.

It is important, then, that we approach the next stages of this discussion in a measured and constructive way and don’t allow this to become a partisan political battle. Let’s remember what’s at stake – the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our country.

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Coincidently I had a conversation on this subject last night. The battle to prevent the use of drugs is irrevocably lost and we must take steps to reduce the harm to society as a whole and for the addicted users of drugs. The point of the conversation was about the enormous amount of petty crime that is perpetrated to feed the habits of the addicted. My daughter in law was a juror on such a case yesterday.

    If drugs were supplied, to registered addicts, in clean surroundings, on a prescription basis, much of the associated crime would disappear overnight. The addicts would no longer be sold contaminated products and the gangsters that run drug pushers to provide illegal drugs would lose their markets.

    Crime in Scotland would be reduced at a stroke and the chances of recovery for addicts would be much greater. This really is a crusade that we should all get behind.

    1. Willie says:

      Absolutely right Dougie the war, if ever there was one, against drugs has been lost.

      Ruthless vicious gangs control this trade and their tentacles run deep into community.

      The USA through prohibition era learned that human nature prevented the eradication of booze and they have learned the same again as they now legalise cannabis.

      The legalisation of booze or cannabis does not mean however that we should ignore their effects. But bringing such drugs and their distribution into the open allows society to have better control whilst eradicating the criminality.

      Think Columbian drug cartels and one can see how bad it can get. But mind you, the recent haul of sub machine guns and grenades from Glasgow gangsters indicates how it can go.

      Of course the pejorative named shooting galleries as some would more flippantly call the drug support centres that Councillor Hunter proposes make sense.

      The descent into addiction, from the functioning alcoholic to the street destitute arises from a variety of causes, social, emotional, economic and these people need medical assistance.

      So why would we deny folk that need health and social care. Is it because our twee puritanical moral compass says that it’s all the drug abuser`s fault, just wise up or die, and don’t leave a bad smell on your way out.

      And meanwhile the gangsterism, the corruption that the social and economic misery continues unabated in an self inflicted orgy of flagelative Puritanism.

      Councillor Hunter’s proposal makes much sense.

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        Yes, her proposal is sensible in so far as it goes but I would like us to go a lot further. I fear however that we run up against the legalisation of drugs and supplying drugs. I understand that this is a power reserved to Westminster although I would be happy to be corrected on that.

        Westminster, driven by the tabloid press, want to wave the big stick despite the failure of such actions in the past. If we can get full control over drug policy and criminality in Scotland I would like to bring forward radical changes as described in my piece at the top of this thread.

  2. DaveyM says:

    A well-considered and highly important piece. Current drugs policy does not work; indeed, the last Labour government wholesale rejected the evidence-based advice of its drugs policy expert – shamefully. When laws are made in order to appease those who write and read the right-wing press, there will be victims. Prohibition does not work. It cannot work. Taking a similar approach to that in Portugal or Switzerland would lessen criminality and drug-associated health problems at a stroke. I fear, however, that asking Westminster for sensible additional powers such as these will never bear fruit.

  3. Paul Immelman says:

    Tonight report on channel 4 Birmingham looking at similar but requires changes to Misuse of Drugs Act about time drug misuse should be seen as a health & social care issue and not solely criminal justice

  4. Michael Dooley says:

    Let us get back to facts. There is not a public health emergency. Drugs such as heroin are illegal. Until parliament repeal the drug laws in place then the law should be upheld, otherwise a dictatorship develops. Where politicians to gain votes dismiss any laws that they want when they want.
    Councilor Hunter claims the problem is that the drug addicts live chaotic lives and are unable to stop taking drugs. So instead of demanding more drug rehabilitation units and easier access to treatment to come off drugs our elected official solution is to allow them to keep taking drugs so long as it is not any where near her front door. The SNP are advocating these centers as part of their wider political agenda which is for Scotland to be considered a liberal first wold democracy similar to other small nations like Holland , Sweden and Norway. No harm in that in itself, but do we want the rule of law or the rule of dogmatic politicos like Councilor for Govanhill Ms Hunter?

    1. Juan P says:

      The Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) are advocating introduction of drug consumption rooms not the SNP.

      Whilst thr Scottish Government are supportive of the proposals they recognise that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 requires to be amended by the UK Gov, or powers over drug laws devolved, before the proposals could be progressed.

      The likely approach, if the MODA 1971 was amended or drug laws were devolved, would be for legislation to be put forward in the Scottish Parliament and for it debated and ultimately voted on. The proposals have support from SNP, Greens, Lib Dems and some labour MSPs so it’s likely the legislation would be enacted.

      Ireland has already introduced similar legislation this year. It enjoyed cross party political support and the Act can be seen here:

      http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2017/act/7/enacted/en/html

  5. David Allan says:

    Thanks Mhairi, an informative article, I had no idea of the scale of the issue in Glasgow City Centre nor was I aware of the obstacles delaying an outcome.

    I hope this progressive approach makes quick progress and a “Fix Room” is established soon.

    Perhaps even a Mobile facility might help.

    Thanks due again to Bella for providing this platform.

  6. David Allan says:

    Thanks Mhairi, an informative article, I had no idea of the scale of the issue in Glasgow City Centre nor was I aware of the obstacles delaying an outcome.

    I hope this progressive approach makes quick progress and a “Fix Room” is established soon.

    Perhaps even a Mobile facility might help.

    Thanks due again to Bella for providing this platform.

  7. w.b.robertson says:

    If you are found lying about the pavement pissed you are liable to be lifted by the police and chucked in a cell. If you are found lying up a close semi-comatose through drugs they send for an ambulance and the NHS comes to the rescue. The important thing is not to bother the great unseeing (and “respectable”) public.

    1. Juan P says:

      Eh?

      Firstly, hardly anyone is reported for being drunk and incapable in a public place.

      Secondly, why wouldn’t emergency services help people found, for whatever reason, lying semi-comatose and vulnerable in the street.

  8. Willie says:

    Right glad am I that an April Fool can diagnose a medical condition on the street and decide to disregards it.

    At least WB Robertson the respectable people would never drop needing your assistance.

    I’m nor sure but with Tory comments such as you express, I can imagine your daughter or son croaking ther last whilst the righteous audience looked on clapping at the decision not to treat.

    You are Sir a Tory l, heart as soul.

  9. Juan P says:

    Thought it was worth posting an excerpt from the Irish Parliament when they passed legislation for supervised injecting facilities earlier this year.

    Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

    I want to put on record what a wonderful moment it is in our Oireachtas to finally pass this Bill. I acknowledge the members of the Ana Liffey Drug Project who are in the Visitors Gallery. They have been working over a number of years to make this day a reality. I thank the Minister of State for taking this on and for bringing it to today’s point at which it will finally pass and become law. Notwithstanding the comments of my colleague from Fianna Fáil, this has had pretty much universal political support across the spectrum in both Houses. Perhaps we are maturing as a country in terms of drug law. Senator Lynn Ruane and I are moving on 31 May a Bill that will hopefully once again achieve wide-ranging political support to take the next step in the decriminalisation of the drug user.

    I want to put on record the name of a man called Robert Keyes, who died on 8 November 2015 in St. Audeon’s Park in Dublin of a fatal overdose. When the person who came across his body telephoned the emergency services, the person said that it was “just another junkie”. This man’s mother came forward recently and spoke about her son lovingly and caringly in the media and said that nobody is a “junkie” in this country. What the Minister of State is doing today is ensuring through this life-saving measure that we bring humanity back into our drug policy and that we finally move beyond the situation in which anybody would decide to dehumanise or denigrate another person with that disgusting term. Every citizen of this State is entitled to humane and compassionate treatment. If somebody is hopelessly crippled with an addiction, he or she deserves the care and compassion of this State. This injecting centre legislation provides this in order that nobody else has to go to a park, behind a skip, into an alleyway or into a playground to inject themselves in such a harmful manner.

    We will establish a facility that will ensure people’s lives can be saved, that they will not contract hepatitis C or HIV and that we can look on these individuals as people with names. Perhaps it is time for a names project such the one in the United States for people with AIDS. We have the third highest overdose rate in Europe. Perhaps people who are affected by this or whose families are affected such as the people who approach me and say their son or brother died of an overdose but will not say so publicly can begin to speak their names in a loving way because they are or were not junkies. They are human beings afflicted by addiction. This is the first step along the road towards a proper way to tackle this issue in a humane and compassionate way. I congratulate the Minister of State on taking it on, dealing with it with such humanity and dignity and seeing it through to this day. We speak in an empty Chamber, but that does not mean that what we are doing is not absolutely historic and will not save lives.

  10. Derek says:

    I’d never really considered heroin, but have had a few thoughts about the de-criminalisation of cannabis. My ideas for progress were much along the lines of the Netherlands – you’re allowed 3 plants for your own use. I suppose that this might help with heroin too, as you’re not going to a dealer for dope so aren’t going to be offered anything else.

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      Unfortunately cannabis is not the real problem although it lead on to something worse. Our problem is with those addicted to heroin; they are so desperate that they will steal anything, from anybody, to feed their habit. The result is a tsunami of petty crime and violence. In some of the worst areas, usually the most deprived, we are at the stage of societal breakdown.

      We need a step change in how we deal with drugs and help the addicted. Until we break the link between drug use and crime we will never make a meaningful improvement to the lives of those that are in that horrible situation and for all those having to live and deal with them on a daily basis. The answer is to decriminalise all drug use and prescribe it for the addicts.

      1. Willie says:

        Your comments Douglas are absolutely enlightened.

        So what stops us introducing legislative provision whereby we can provide health and social support to the addicted, promote better the potential for disease spread, whilst at the same time taking a huge bite out of criminality.

        Look at Glasgow which through the flourishing drug cartels is now like 1920s Chicago.

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