SCOTLAND is to be the site of a radical 'drug rehabilitation village', the Sunday Herald has learned.

The proposal for the groundbreaking Scottish residential drug recovery project near Ayr - inspired by some of the most radical rehab programmes around the world – has been given the go-ahead. Those behind the 'rehab village' say it will save lives.

The “game changing” River Garden residential centre, or mini-village, in Auchincruive, three miles from Ayr, is being developed by charity Independence from Drugs and Alcohol Scotland (IFDAS) to provide accommodation, training and support initially for up to 40 former addicts who will live there for up to three years.

The average rehab programme in Scotland lasts three months. Although 97 per cent of people leaving residential drug treatment programmes are clean, about 80 per cent have relapsed within a month. In Scotland there were 867 drug-related deaths last year, amongst the worst in Europe. The figure has more than doubled since 2005. It is claimed a quarter of deaths are of those who have relapsed shortly after completing abstinence-based programmes.

The Herald:

Mark Bitel, social entrepreneur behind the plans for River Garden recovery centre (pic Colin Mearns)

IFDAS trustee Mark Bitel, himself a former addict who worked with the Scottish Government supporting its Road to Recovery policy, said that staying clean needed more than just medical treatment. He hopes the project will not only save lives but demonstrate that a different way of supporting people is possible.

The prototype community which is based on the ground-breaking and successful San Patrignano community in Italy which sees 80 per cent of addicts remain in long term recovery, has just received planning permission. It aims to open next March.

Like the Delancey Street programme in San Francisco and Basta in Sweden, the Ayr rehab village will use a social enterprise model with residents helping to restore the 18th century walled gardens of the college that was formerly on the site as a visitor attraction with the help of former Royal Horticultural Society gardener Colin Crosbie.

The community will grow food to supply an onsite shop and café and run a bakery.The programme will be free while residents are volunteering – expected to be for an average 15-month period – but they will pay for their accommodation once they are employed by the centre.

Bitel, also chair of the Scottish Recovery Network, which yesterday organised the annual Recovery Walk in Dundee, said the centre would focus on "residential training and a social enterprise development centre where people can live in a place of safety and support. In time it could well develop into a village.

"When people are clean they need to learn how to re-live their lives in a constructive, helpful, loving, supportive, meaningful way and get back to being a worker, a tax payer and a good human being. That's the gap we are trying to bridge.

"What happens to most people [after they leave drug treatment] is they are out of the job market, they are bored out of the brains and start to ask themselves: 'Why did I go through all of this when my life is actually worse than it was before?'. Before, they were medicated and the pain was taken away, now they are feeling that pain."

Bitel said that as well as offering work based training in horticulture and hospitality, residents would establish healthy routines. "We will lovingly restore and rehabilitate the garden while lovingly rehabilitating people," he added.

Christopher James, a former resident of San Patrignano where he recovered from cocaine and amphetamine addiction, will be an employed as a peer worker on the programme. He said community support, which forced him to take the advice and help of others, was critical to his long term recovery. Previously, he said he "had cleaned up and relapsed so often that the telephone number for my ‘favourite’ rehab was still in my phone memory when I decided to contact them the third time".

He added: "Imagine if Scotland could, based on projects like this, turn its reputation around and become a world famous centre of addiction care and rehabilitation. If we are a success at River Garden Auchincruive, and others take our lead, we could develop something truly special."

Kuladharini, a Buddhist nun and chief executive of the Scottish Recovery Consortium, added: "It [River Garden] offers Scotland an amazing new possibility. It is a game changer and a completely different way of making a contribution to long term recovery from addiction. What's not to love about that?"