Impassioned pleas at Westminster debate on Drug Consumption Rooms rejected by UK Government

A debate on drug consumption rooms (DCRs) was led by Ronnie Cowan, MP for Inverclyde in Westminster Hall on Wednesday the 17th of January.

In his opening statement, Cowan called on the UK Government to legalise the rooms – in Scotland referred to as Safer Drug Consumption Facilities (SDCF) – or devolve the powers needed for the Scottish Government to do so. However, the debate provided the first clear indication that the UK Government is unwilling to allow either possibility.

The debate was in relation to the proposed SDCF in Glasgow City Centre, which would provide a facility for people to inject drugs, most likely heroin, under medical supervision.

The proposal was approved by Glasgow’s Integrated Joint Board last year in a bid to address the health needs and prevent further spread of HIV among an estimated 500 people who inject publicly in Glasgow city centre.

In order to provide the service legally, the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s senior law officer, was approached; however, in November, he stated no exemption from the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971  could be made. With drug law reserved to Westminster, the UK Government would need to approve the proposal to relax the law to allow drugs to be taken in the facility or devolve The Misuse of Drugs Act to Edinburgh.

Ronnie Cowan, who is vice-chair of All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drugs Policy Reform, said “The UK Government must look at the growing body of evidence and change the law to allow DCRs to be opened in the UK without fear of prosecution.

“If not, they must devolve the relevant powers to Scotland to allow the [Scottish] Government to pursue ambitious and innovative new methods to tackle the public health issue of unsafe drug consumption.

“These facilities provide needles which instantly reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. Instantly we improve the health of the user and instantly we engage users back into society where they can be signposted to the relevant services.”

Also in attendance at the debate was Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow Central, whose constituency the facility would be set up in, who said she backed the plan and said it would save lives.

Ms Thewliss also said public injecting was causing problems for people who use drugs and communities and that safer drug consumption facility would help both – from reversing overdose deaths and infection rates to reducing publicly discarded drug litter.

She stated: “I can attest to the fact that Glasgow has a growing problem with respect to public injecting; my constituency office often receives reports of needles and other drug paraphernalia being discarded in public places.”

She said cases of HIV were on the rise with over a 100 confirmed diagnoses among people who inject drugs in the past three years.

Ms Thewliss added: “It is imperative that the Home Office consider this request which has cross-party support from a number of Scottish MPs to allow an SDCF to be trialled in Glasgow.

“This issue has become a serious public health issue, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that we do what we can to improve the situation not just for drug users, but for the wider public in general.”

The proposals, brought forward by Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership, also include a Heroin-Assisted Treatment service, where pharmaceutical-grade heroin would be prescribed to a small number of people.

Speaking towards the end of the debate, Victoria Atkins, MP for Louth and Horncastle and Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the UK Home Office said: “To be very clear from the start, the Government do not agree with the Honourable Gentleman’s [Ronnie Cowan] suggestion. We have no intention of introducing drug consumption rooms, nor do we have any intention of devolving the United Kingdom policy on drug classification and the way in which we deal with prohibited drugs to Scotland.”

“I will come to what DCRs are about because their purpose is not recovery. Recovery is at the heart of the Government’s drug strategy.”

David Liddell, Chief Executive Officer of Scottish Drugs Forum stated after the debate:

“This is the first clear indication that the current UK Government is not willing to engage in a potentially life-saving and, significantly, evidence-based approach, which would provide another tool in attempting to combat the increasing numbers of drug-related deaths and drug-related infections.

“There remains a clear need to develop better services for vulnerable injectors, in Glasgow and beyond and while SDCF’s may not be possible in the near future, the needs of this population must not go unmet.  Provision such as heroin-assisted treatment can be delivered now and does not require any changes to the Misuse of Drugs Act or legal dispensation from the Lord Advocate.

“What we have in Glasgow, and other parts of Scotland, is a population of people who have had a drug problem for many years and for whom abstinent recovery is not on their near horizon but who remain vulnerable, in poor health and exposed to the risk of infection including HIV infection. Therefore, we must engage with them in a realistic way which focuses on approaches that keep people alive as a key first goal and then assist them to take support from a wider range of services.”

A spokesperson for Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership confirmed following the Home Office’s statement that plans to develop a safe drug consumption facility in Glasgow were still underway.

A video of the debate can be viewed here.

A transcript of the debate can be read here.