The News Many Have Been Waiting For

Kaitlin Dryburgh

It’s been years in the making. What many have been waiting for. Years of campaigning and wrestling with politicians to look at the success of other countries.

Finally the Lord Advocate has given her unofficial approval that drug consumption rooms or my preferred name “overdose prevention centres” could lawfully function. She stated, “that it would not be in the public interest for people using a pilot Safer Drug Consumption room to face prosecution for possession within the facility”. Just to point out this does not facilitate an exclusion zone where are acts of criminality are allowed, it simply means that police officers will not arrest those using the centre for possession of an illegal substance.

This is not a silver bullet, but my god it’s a great start in decreasing the drug deaths.

Yet the announcement hasn’t been met with cheers from everyone. Campaigners for a recovery only solution and a concerned public have voiced some opposition. In among these discussions lay some myths and a lack of logic.

For many the concept of overdose prevention centres is defeatist, even an encouragement to take drugs. This belief is mostly fuelled by a fantasy that we can eradicate drugs from our streets by force and an illegal status, and in some cases an illusion that we can live in a world where drug taking does not exist. Neither of those will ever exist. We have tried and it’s simply not working.

This announcement is not stating that drugs are to be fully decriminalised, although many believe that this is the first step that would still be a whole other conversation. The Lord Advocate has made this statement specifically about overdose prevention centres. Many in the right leaning media, as well as campaigners who oppose the implementation of these centres have pointed to the US city of Portland as an example as why this shouldn’t take place. However, the city of Portland chose to make all drugs in all situations decriminalised, that is not what is happening here. Additionally the city of Portland made this move with little thought about recovery services and the reasons why some find themselves in an uncontrollable addiction or self medicating with hard drugs.

Drug consumption rooms or overdose prevention centres are for the hardest of drug users. You will not catch someone rocking up deciding that they want to try smoking a joint for the first time, in all honestly they probably won’t be the most pleasant of places. Their existence won’t encourage anyone to dip their toe in drugs. They are there to save lives through the intervention of naloxone, information and advice, and resuscitation interventions.

However, they should not be in the place of recovery. Their purpose is to save lives when an addict is not ready for recovery as of yet. We can’t pretend that every person who makes contact with an overdose prevention centre is instantly ready to begin getting clean. The recovery process is a long one, but being alive is an essential criteria. We still need a well rounded approach that helps everyone, we need access to more rehab places, faster introductions to treatment within the community, but we also need to make it safer for those who perhaps don’t have a ‘problem’ with drugs. Someone who is taking drugs at a festival probably wont have any need for a rehab bed, but testing to ensure the contents are safe will help them, as well as other harm reduction techniques. Education is also key.

Much objection from the public has stemmed from a query of where they would be placed. That’s a fair concern. On the face of it would anyone opt to live beside a consumption room, perhaps not. However, as it stands the current alternative to a consumption room is quite often the streets. The alleyways between the buildings where people work, the hallways of tenements flats and the parks where children play. A controlled building is perhaps a safer alternative for everyone when the other option may be outside. Dunfermline among other towns and cities have raised concerns over the increase in needle waste seen in their city. Needles out in the public are a massive health and safety problem and individuals experiencing an overdose in the streets is in no ones best interests. Having read some of the many comments and listened to reactions in the news there is a worry that children will be exposed to the operations of consumptions rooms. As stated above it’s already happening on the streets as I write this, the consumption rooms are a better alternative. Yet would it not be preferable to live in a country which can at least say it didn’t let someone die needlessly, it did at least try and save their life. It’s not a bad message for children. We care about everyone.

Although this new announcement will spur on the opening of overdose prevention centres we still don’t have the plans for how they will operate, where they will be situated and what they will consist of. Campaigners have asked that they are not completely hidden. They will be most effective when they are accessible, therefore it is most likely that they’ll be situated in busy areas which already experience a lot of drug use. If we are to alleviate the already hefty stigma associated with drug abuse which helps to ostracise those from society then we also can’t have overdose prevention centres lurking in the shadows. That being said, should they be placed right bang beside a school, no.

One of, if not the strongest arguments for overdose prevention centres is that as stated in the name, they prevent overdoses and save lives. Yet there are many other bonuses to allow these to operate in Scotland. Centres like these give an opportunity for those who often live on the fringes of our society to make contact with health professionals and those who could help them. Although it’s still too soon to determine how these centres will be run, those who have been campaigning for years have taken much inspiration from other countries and believe that one of the most effective ways to run a centre should be in a de-medicalised setting. This informal setting, although equipped with sufficient medical help will encourage some of the hardiest and disillusioned drug users to trust the service and use it, as it has a much more approachable front. Although it is unlikely that an initial interaction will result in a user deciding they want to access help, it could be the first step in that person living a better life, beginning to trust in services, and perhaps seeking help.

Additionally, Scotland faces challenges with needles. Having previously noted that needle litter is both dangerous and unsightly to look at, it is in everyone’s best interest that we provide drug users with a safe supply of needles, but also a secure place to return them. Scotland already has needle exchange programmes throughout various pharmacies and some towns and cities have even fitted bins that are specifically for needles to be disposed of. These centres would provide but another opportunity for users to access clean needles and stop the spread of viruses and diseases. This became an emergency for Glasgow due to an increased spread of HIV in the last couple of years. Although numbers seem to have stabilised in recently, for many the outbreak was reminiscent of the 80s outbreak in Edinburgh that went on to inspire the book and subsequent film Trainspotting. For those working within drug services they could clearly see the direct effect of a needle exchange programme closing and the increase of needle sharing increasing. This resulted in an inflation of new HIV cases in the city. Yet another reason how an overdose prevention centre can save lives.

In this struggle to finally get the go ahead for overdose prevention centres there have been many relentless campaigners who have put their careers on the line to get to this point. One of those figures being Peter Krykant who opened his own mobile overdose prevention centre in 2020 proving that it can be done, It can save lives and many in the community do support their existence.

Although there is still a long way to go in the struggle to reduce drug deaths and addiction in Scotland, hopefully we are on our way. 

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