The first drug consumption space in the UK has been given the green light for users to use illicit narcotics while receiving medical attention.
The £2.3 million building is slated for Glasgow’s east end and will enable users to use illicit substances on their own in a hygienic setting with on-site medical personnel.
The creation of drug consumption rooms has been the subject of years of political debate between the Scottish and UK administrations since it was first suggested in 2016 in the wake of a citywide HIV outbreak.
However, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain KC, the highest ranking lawyer in Scotland, stated earlier this month that it would not be “in the public interest” to prosecute those who use such a service, and the Home Office stated that it had no plans to interfere with the pilot.
The Glasgow City Integration Joint Board meeting on Wednesday morning authorised the pilot project that is slated for Hunter Street, which will be located in the same building as an existing drug treatment centre.
In a report, the board—which includes NHS and municipal representatives—recommends that the plan be approved.
As she moved approval of the drug consumption pilot, board chairwoman Rona Sweeney told the meeting: “I’m sure we all wish our city didn’t need this facility, but the reality is that we do.”
The report states: “There is overwhelming international evidence which demonstrates that safer drug consumption facilities can improve the health, wellbeing and recovery of people who use the facility and reduce the negative impact that public injecting has on local communities and businesses.”
It highlights that following the HIV outbreak, an assessment “found there are approximately 400 to 500 people injecting drugs in public places in Glasgow city centre on a regular basis”.
It adds: “Injecting in public spaces increases the risk of infection and other drug related harms, and also causes a risk to the public from discarded injecting equipment and needles.”
SNP councillor Norman Macleod told the meeting he wants to see heroin provided to addicts, saying: “We’re still in a position where individuals who are addicted are obtaining their drugs from criminals and that, in my view, is profoundly to be regretted.
“I would look forward as soon as possible to initiatives such as those used in Switzerland where heroin-addicted individuals not only had safe consumption areas but the heroin was provided. That took the criminals right out of it.”
Fellow SNP councillor Allan Casey told the meeting: “This has to be done right. This is the first consumption room in the UK and all eyes are going to be on Glasgow and we need to make sure we get it right for those using it and make sure we’re saving lives.”
Concerns were raised over how those travelling to the facility would be treated by police by SNP councillor Chris Cunningham, who said: “In order to possess drugs within the confines of the facility, they have to bring them in. It seems to me someone coming to the facility could be regarded as committing a crime.
“We don’t want a situation where someone can be charged for possession of illegal drugs 50 yards outside the facility. That isn’t going to work.”
The plans for a consumption room have the support of the Scottish Government, although some MSPs have expressed worries about the effects on the neighbourhood, notably on businesses.
First Minister Humza Yousaf said he “very much welcomes” the decision when testifying before the Conveners Group at Holyrood. He said, “I also welcome the Lord Advocate’s latest statement in relation to prosecution policy in this regard.”
“So I’m very grateful to Glasgow for moving at pace and let me say unequivocally the Scottish Government is ready to stand alongside Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership and colleagues within local government to advance this proposition as quickly as we possibly can, obviously within the confines of the pilot that was proposed.
“That extends to, for example, how we can provide funding support for that safer drug consumption facility too.”
The First Minister continued by saying that the council has expressed a desire to “take the community with them” when building the facility and he praised activists like Peter Krykant for establishing a mobile consumption area in an ambulance despite the threat of legal action.
In his subsequent remarks, Mr. Yousaf mentioned a recent trip to New York capital, where he spoke with officials about their experiences with consumption facilities, asserting that they are “one tool as part of a wider effort to reduce drug deaths” in the American capital.
Elena Whitham, the minister for drug and alcohol policy in Scotland, applauded the board’s decision and stated that the government has pledged to pay the additional $2,347,000 each year beginning in April 2024/25.
She said: “We know this is not a silver bullet. But we know from evidence from more than 100 facilities worldwide that safer drug consumption facilities work.
“It is time to see this approach piloted in Scotland and while the service would still be limited to some extent, due to the Misuse of Drugs Act reserved to Westminster, we are confident it would save lives.
“It’s vital this pilot has the full confidence of the general public as well as those who use the facility, and the leadership of Glasgow and Police Scotland will help ensure it is introduced as quickly as possible.”
In a report released last month, the Westminster Home Affairs Committee proposed safe consumption facility pilot programmes in regions across the UK where local government and others believe there is a need.
The UK Government does not support such facilities in England and Wales, according to Home Office Minister Chris Philp, who previously expressed worry that they “condone or even encourage” drug use.
However, Mr. Philp assured lawmakers that as long as the power is used legally, his department “won’t stand in the way” of the Scotland experiment.
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane said: “Drug deaths in Scotland remain the highest in Europe and this crisis has spiralled out of control on the SNP’s watch.
“The Scottish Conservatives are happy for a variety of potential solutions to be looked at – including this pilot scheme – but we still have serious reservations about how effective drug consumption rooms will be in reality.”
He urged the Scottish Government to support his party’s proposals to introduce a Right to Recovery Bill that would make it legal for anyone who need drug treatment to get it.