Tom Gordon

SAFE injection rooms would be widely used by drug addicts if introduced in Scotland, benefiting those at greatest risk, new research has found.

The first study of its kind in Scotland found three-quarters of people injecting drugs would be willing to attend drug consumption rooms (DCRs) to help reduce the risks to their health.

Drug injectors in Glasgow were even more prepared to use a DCR, with 83 per cent of those surveyed ready to visit one if it was set up in the city centre.

The Glasgow Caledonian University research concluded the case for DCRs was “compelling”, and raised the prospect of “mobile DCRs” travelling around Scotland if the law allowed it.

It said: “The vast majority of people who inject drugs at greatest risk of drug-related harm in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland would be willing to use a DCR, supporting proposals for the introduction of DCRs nationally.”

Scotland has one of the worst records on drug deaths in Europe, with 1,187 in 2018, a 27% rise on the previous year, and 2019 expected to be even worse.

The Glasgow Caledonian study, published today in the Internal Journal of Drug Policy, was based on interviews with around 10 to 15% of Scotland’s drug injectors.

Supervised healthcare facilities where people can take drugs in safer conditions, DCRs are used successfully in many countries in Europe, as well as in Canada and Australia.

They are supported by the Scottish Government, health officials and police, with well-advanced plans to pilot a DCR in Glasgow.

However the UK Government has repeatedly refused to countenance DCRs, leave Glasgow unable to operate one legally under Westminster’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.

UK ministers rejected DCRs again when they held a drugs summit in Glasgow in February.

Despite UK Government resistance, the research found the new type of service would be highly effective in reaching those it wanted to help.

It was based on interviews with 1469 drug injectors in 2017 and 2018 which tried to gauge people’s readiness to use the new type of facility.

They were told: “A drug consumption room is a place where you can bring drugs to inject or smoke in a safe environment. You can also get clean works, help with injecting technique and other advice”, then asked: “Would you use a drug consumption room if it were made available in your area?”

The research found 75% were willing to use DCRs but this was higher among those interviewed in city centres.

Willingness was greater among people who reported injecting heroin (76%), injecting cocaine (79%), those with experiences of homelessness (86%), public injecting (87%) and recent overdose (80%).

The survey team also tested blood anonymously for HIV and hepatitis C to help better understand the prevalence of blood borne viruses among injectors.

Kirsten Trayner, the PhD researcher who was the lead author on the new paper, said: “Willingness to use a drug consumption room was extremely high across all regions in Scotland and among key risk groups, including those who reported homelessness, cocaine injecting and public injecting.

“It shows that this intervention will attract those most at risk of different drug-related harms, particularly HIV and overdose in Scotland. They have the potential to make a big impact in areas where they are introduced.

“The case for drug consumption rooms on the impact they can have on drug-related harms alone is compelling.

"They need to be implemented within a package of harm reduction interventions that includes easily accessible drug treatment, widespread availability of clean injecting equipment, and take-home naloxone for those at risk of overdose.”

Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP for Glasgow Central, who has led calls for a DCR in the city, welcomed the research.

She said: "Scotland faces a public health emergency when it comes to drug use and it’s clear that the current UK laws are not working. 

“There is an urgent need for a fresh approach to tackle this issue, and this study highlights some key conclusions which the UK government cannot simply brush under the carpet.

“Earlier this year, the SNP Scottish Government hosted a major conference to hear from people with lived experience of drug use, those working with frontline services, and a range of experts, regarding how best we can work together to tackle this crisis.

“I have repeatedly pressed the UK government to explore plans to pilot a Supervised Drug Consumption Facility in Glasgow, which research is showing would be an effective way of tackling the problem, and helping some of those most at risk. We must not forget that people are continuing to die from drugs during this coronavirus outbreak."

LibDem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton also said it was important to remember the battle with drug deaths amidst Covid-19.

He said: "Crises on other fronts aren't pushing pause to let us handle this virus. Scotland's drug death rate is one of the most acute challenges facing our National Health Service.

"Drug consumption rooms are a practical way to save lives and this report shows they have every chance of being successful.

"Both of Scotland's governments should be championing this solution."

Glasgow Tory MSP Annie Wells said: “This research fails to address the point that the vast majority of people with addiction want help to get off drugs.

“Unfortunately the SNP’s approach to the escalating drug crisis in Scotland has been to focus on drug consumption rooms and very little else.

“What is beyond doubt is that the SNP can increase drug rehab beds now and has chosen not to – a point also made at the recent drugs summit.”