DRUGS: No criminal charges for addicts in consumption rooms (updated)

By Bill Heaney

Scotland’s top law officer has given the green light for a trial of so called “safe” drug consumption rooms in Glasgow and the West, despite ongoing refusal from the UK Government to allow it.

Unable to legalise drugs, Dorothy Bain the Lord Advocate, pictured left,  has said that in the event of there being a venue that would allow drug addicts to inject harmful substances like heroin under supervision, it would “not be in the public interest” to prosecute them for possession.

She stressed she had not been asked to “sign off or approve” such a facility however the move has essentially removed legal repercussions for local drug rooms to operate without fear of police intervention. It comes after SNP ministers said Glasgow City Council could now “progress their proposal to set up a facility which can operate within the existing legal framework”.

The Scottish Tories however, say they still have “significant reservations about the effectiveness of consumption rooms” and warn that the move is not a “silver bullet”.

Drug consumption rooms are only dubbed “safe” due to access to clean needles and immediate overdose intervention. They are a controversial solution to Scotland’s record high drug deaths and those who oppose warn that without well rounded addiction services and rehab centers, it can only do so much.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “Today’s statement from the Lord Advocate confirms that the SNP Government are able to proceed with a drugs-consumption room pilot should they wish.

“We still have significant reservations about the effectiveness of consumption rooms, but the SNP now have no excuses not to take this action that they have been demanding for so long.

“Scotland has by far the highest drugs-death rate in Europe and this national emergency has spiralled out of control under the SNP.

“The Scottish Conservatives are happy for a variety of potential solutions to be looked at, even though we don’t think consumption rooms are the silver bullet ministers believe them to be.

“I would urge the SNP to back the Right to Recovery Bill, which focuses on treatment and rehab, and has the backing of experts in the field of addiction and those with lived experience.”

In a statement, Bain said: “On the basis of the information I have been provided, I would be prepared to publish a prosecution policy that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute drug users for simple possession offences committed within a pilot safer drugs consumption facility.”

Her statement that prosecution would not be in the public interest “will not extend to any criminal offences other than possession of controlled substances”.

She added: “Police Scotland have operational independence and it has been of the utmost importance to me to ensure police retain the ability to effectively police the facility and ensure that the wider community, those operating the site and those using the facility can be kept safe.”

Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie, left, said: “This is a welcome intervention from the Lord Advocate that will help lay the groundwork for the establishment of a safe consumption room in Glasgow.

“Scotland’s drug death crisis is a matter of national shame and Scottish Labour believes that drug consumption rooms will help to tackle the number of fatalities and keep people safe.

“It is welcome to see life-saving progress in this vital area being made without another pointless constitutional battle between Scotland’s two failing governments.

“But this is only one part of the fight against drug deaths. We need to see the reversal of years of cuts to drug and alcohol beds to ensure those in need get the help they deserve.”

On Tuesday, Dame Jackie said more must be done to tackle the ‘national scandal’ of drugs deaths,  as quarterly stats reveal a damning 7% increase in suspected drugs deaths compared to the same period in 2022.

A shocking 600 suspected drugs deaths have been recorded in Scotland between January and June 2023 alone, an increase of 38 on the same period last year.

In the most recent quarter, April to June 2023, there were 302 suspected drug deaths during the period.

Despite recent annual data showing a decline in the number of Scotland’s drugs deaths, these latest worrying figures highlight just how much remains to be done.

Dame Jackie said: “Scotland’s drugs death crisis is a national tragedy and these damning figures show that it is far from over.

“Any changes that help tackle this crisis are a welcome intervention, but they cannot reverse these tragic figures alone.

“We know that more must be done to prevent any more fatalities and keep people safe, but we also need more and wider support for people struggling with addiction.

“While the latest news on drug consumption rooms is welcome, it must be coupled with proper funding for drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation and a commitment to tackle the root causes of addiction.”

Suspected drug deaths in Scotland: April to June 2023

Between January and June 2023:

  • There were 600 suspected drug deaths, 7% (38) higher than during the same period of 2022.
  • The Police Divisions with the greatest number of suspected drug deaths were: Greater Glasgow (143), Lanarkshire (76) and Edinburgh City (73).

For the calendar quarter April to June 2023:

  • There were 302 suspected drug deaths during the period, 1% (4) more than the previous calendar quarter (January to March 2023) and 9% (25) more than during the same calendar quarter in the previous year (April to June 2022).
  • There were 1,130 suspected drug deaths over the 12 months to June 2023, 0.4% (5) fewer than over the 12 months to June 2022.

Elena Whitham, left, the Scottish Government minister for drug policy, said: “Glasgow authorities may now progress their proposal to set up a facility which can operate within the existing legal framework.

“While the service would still be limited to some extent, due to the reserved Misuse of Drugs Act, we are confident it would save lives. This is not a silver bullet. But we know from evidence from more than 100 facilities worldwide that Safer Drug Consumption Facilities work. It is now time to see this approach piloted in Scotland.

“It’s vital this pilot has the full confidence of the general public as well as those who use the facility, and the leadership of Glasgow and Police Scotland will help ensure it is introduced as quickly as possible.”

Responding to the statement from the Crown Office in which the Lord Advocate discusses the prospect of a trial of a drugs consumption room in Glasgow, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, right,  said:  “I would like to thank the Lord Advocate for her work on this complex issue. When Scotland has the worst drugs death rate in Europe, the first priority has to be reducing harm.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently argued that safe drugs consumption rooms are part of the solution, alongside access to medical care and support.

“International best practice shows that safe consumption is a vital tool to reducing harm. While the pilot discussed here may be more limited than what we would like to see in an ideal world, there can now be no excuses from the Scottish Government for failing to push ahead with a trial swiftly and urgently.

“If that is successful, the government’s hand will be strengthened immeasurably in pressing ahead with similar proposals in other areas such as Dundee, where drug misuse has taken such a deadly and tragic toll.”

To stop people from dying, Scottish Liberal Democrats would:  

  • Establish heroin assisted treatment and a network of safe consumption rooms.
  • Establish new specialist Family Drug and Alcohol Commissions to help provide wraparound services and to take a holistic approach to those reported for drug offences, leaning from best international practice such as that in Portugal.
  • Divert people caught in possession of drugs for personal use into education, treatment and recovery, ceasing imprisonment in these circumstances.
  • Adopt the principle that individuals and families shouldn’t have to pay for the care and treatment of those at risk of death from drugs and alcohol.

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