Scottish Greens have long held the view that the use of drugs - including alcohol and tobacco - should be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal justice one. We know that punishment has not worked to reduce the numbers of people addicted to harmful substances, and we advocate for proper regulation of drugs based on a harm reduction approach. We were the only party to argue that drugs law should be devolved under the Smith Commission. It should come as no surprise then that I and my fellow Green councillors voted yesterday (Thursday 5th April) to support the plan to create a Safer Drugs Consumption Facility in Glasgow.
We all wish that people did not have to face the problem of addiction to harmful substances. Sadly, in Glasgow we have a small number of citizens – roughly 400-500 people – who regularly inject drugs in the city centre. People inject drugs in public places for a variety of complex reasons, including so they won’t be thrown out of hostel accommodation with zero tolerance policies and because travelling while in possession risks getting caught. But the overwhelming factor is the desperation of addiction.
The group of people who are injecting in the city centre experience multiple inequalities - chronic poverty, homelessness, unemployment, recent imprisonment - and also share an extremely high risk of poor health outcomes and drug-related harm. We also know that people with complex needs face multiple barriers in accessing support. These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Although Glasgow has good addictions support, and the growth of the recovery movement is a very positive thing, we still have a group of people with specific needs and at very high risk who are unable to benefit from that support. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing, because we’re not meeting the needs of these citizens and those around them. Something needs to change.
The proposal to create a safer space in Glasgow for drug users to inject under medical supervision came jointly from the NHS and the Glasgow City Alcohol and Drugs Partnership (ADP) - an official body that includes Police Scotland, Glasgow City Council, Community Safety Glasgow and many other agencies that deal with addiction and drug use. In 2015 there was an alarming spike in new cases of HIV infections, linked to injecting in public places in the city centre. This was the latest of several outbreaks of serious infectious disease among people who inject drugs in Glasgow, including botulism and anthrax. Drug-related deaths in Glasgow have also been a persistent concern – 30% of Scottish drug-related deaths happen in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board area.
In response to this, the NHS board and the ADP looked at evidence from the UK and other countries, and found that, among other measures, providing a safer drug consumption facility would reduce the health and social harms associated with injecting drug use, and public injecting in particular. In consultation, this proposal enjoyed widespread support by stakeholders from the target population, health services, and organisations representing drug users and their families. The experts agree that this is the right approach.
Safer consumption facilities are hygienic environments where illicit drugs (purchased off the premises) can be consumed under clinical supervision, providing people who inject drugs with sterile injecting equipment, assistance in the event of an overdose and, crucially, access to other health and social services.
The first such facility was opened in the 1980s, and more than 90 are now in operation worldwide. Over 100 scientific papers evaluating their impacts have been published and evidence shows that safer consumption facilities:
Reduce public injecting and discarded needles
Reduce the sharing of needles and other injecting equipment
Improve uptake of addictions care and treatment
Do not increase rates of crime and anti-social behaviour in the local area
Result in cost savings overall, due to reduced ill-health and health care usage among users
We can see that in Glasgow, with safer injecting practises, transition to safer forms of drug use and engagement in effective treatment services, there would be a reduced risk of virus transmission, reduced number of infections and injuries, and reduced risk of overdose and opioid-related death.
It’s essential that support services are located within the facility, and this would provide a means to get support to those who find it difficult to engage with other services, and offer help with housing, welfare rights and wider medical needs.
It would also reduce the impact of public injecting on local communities and the city centre. I know that residents and businesses are concerned about the impact of public injecting on our public spaces. A safer consumption facility would mean a reduction in public disorder, and fewer dirty needles on our streets. This can only ever be a good thing.
Finally, it would be a cost effective use of public money. By investing in this new form of treatment, the evidence suggests we will reduce use of crisis services and see better health outcomes with less cost.
The location of a proposed facility is obviously going to be of some concern to some in our communities, but there is no evidence that such facilities increase rates of crime or anti-social behaviour, and in fact we know that they improve the area, with less litter and fewer public injections. We have to have the courage to stand up for this, even if it’s initially unpopular. An attitude of ‘not in my backyard’ helps nobody - let’s be brave and trust the evidence.
It’s disappointing that the Tory government in Westminster is not yet listening to Scottish calls to deliver the legal changes needed to make this facility possible. We hope that Amber Rudd accepts the invitation from Glasgow City Council to come and see for herself what our city needs. The longer she delays, the greater the chance that more lives will be needlessly lost.
This is a hugely important opportunity for us to grasp as a city. The vision behind it is bold, and it will help transform the lives of hundreds of our most vulnerable citizens and everyone who lives and works with them. I and my fellow Greens fully support this and any evidence based measures that reduce the harms caused by drugs. We’ll keep pressing for Scotland to have control over our drug laws, and we’ll do everything we can to reduce the burden of drug addiction on the people of our great city.