Fix room for drug addicts overdue but welcome

A safe injection facility in Glasgow is only the first step in a necessary shift from law enforcement to health-based drug approaches, Kenny MacAskill argues

By: 
Kenny MacAskill
Date: 
Tuesday, 08 November, 2016

The announcement of support for Safe Injection Facilities in Glasgow is long a overdue but very welcome decision. Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership are to be congratulated for taking these first practical steps.

A considerable distance still has to be travelled and doubtless many difficulties will arise. This has simply been the approval of a development plan; the devil as always will be in the detail.

The precise terms of its operation and location of its premises have to be decided. It’s suggested that the facilities will offer both the opportunity for users to consume their own drugs safely and under supervision; as well as, in some cases, the prescription of medical grade heroin.

Both would be welcome; and both are practical and legal.

Tackling drug harms

The site of the facility will no doubt face challenges from opponents, whether to the principle itself or simply its position. That can be overcome.

Glasgow has some 500 estimated users and it will be the first such facility in the UK. The driver has been the dangers experienced by users and the harm inflicted on communities, due to current methods of drug consumption.

For the former, risks of violence and abuse have been prevalent, as sites have been sought to allow for the fix they crave. Often dark and dingy, and invariably seedy, violence and abuse can abound.

Equally, the self-same sites can become dangerous for the latter, allied to the harm for communities of the random discarding of needles and drug paraphernalia there and other in public places.

Not only do assaults occur but many deprived communities, who often suffer most, vent their anger on some of the most marginalised in them for their actions.

The current situation is therefore harmful for user and community alike.

In addition, last year saw a spike in HIV infection in the city. That had come about no doubt through the sharing of needles and the huddling together of users, who felt themselves hounded when seeking to have their fix.

Drug deaths have also been sadly high over recent years, as what are euphemistically called the 'trainspotting generation' struggle to cope with even minor infections, given the drug abuse their bodies have sustained over years.

Nothing can shield them entirely from the consequences of their actions. Steps can be taken to mitigate the harm; and this is one.

The facility, wherever and whenever it comes about, will allow for greater supervision of addicts, as well as support for them. What they consume can be regulated better, how they consume can be matter managed.

Advice and counselling can be provided for individuals who are usually troubled and fragile.

It’s no wonder that some 90 such facilities already exist around the world, mainly in Europe.

Prosecution is futile

It’s not about providing a cure for drug addiction. No such remedy sadly exists. However, abstinence is not an option for many and threats of legal consequences are an equally futile strategy.

This will provide greater opportunities to keep addicts safe, whilst seeking to work with them to provide a route out of their affliction; or just keep them safe and able to function.

Equally, communities can be kept better protected from the issues that drug-taking can cause, when marginalised and pushed underground.

A health, not law enforcement, issue

This should not be read as a drive for a more liberal drug policy north of the border; though that too is long overdue. Support from the Scottish Government had been mooted for some time. Their public endorsement had been muted until now.

Though many powers have been sought by the Nationalist administration, reforming the Misuse of Drugs Act has never been a high priority.

The First Minister herself had refused to countenance any change until recently. The powers, though, under which such facilities can be established and medical grade heroin provided are health-related and already within the devolved competency of the Parliament.

Hence, support for the venture came from the Health Minister and not the Justice Secretary. However, whether belated and from whoever, it still is very welcome.

The First Minister has, though, recently given support to the prescription of medicinal cannabis. Again, that’s to be supported, though it raises a number of questions.

Is NIcola Sturgeon seeking for the UK Government to act, or is she requesting the powers to do so? If the former, what happens if and probably when they say no? If the latter, why only medicinal cannabis and no other drugs that can arguably assist?

If the First Minister doesn’t believe the current policy is working why not seek the powers?

Those questions are for another day. For now, a start has been made on seeking to address drug addiction as a health, not law enforcement, issue, and that can only be a good thing.