Today
Fri 7 May 2021

As the Scottish Government announces an extra £250 million to tackle the ‘national disgrace’ of drug-related deaths, Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern report on Westminster’s failing drugs policy and how it is stopping Scotland from fighting addiction

It’s 10am on a cold, grey morning east of Glasgow city centre and heroin users are looking for somewhere to take their first fix of the day.

A young man and woman make their way through a filthy alleyway littered with used syringe packets. Typically, these doorways reeking of urine would provide their best chance of a hidden corner. They might even use dirty puddle water to mix their dose. But not today.

The pair head for a white transit van and ask if anyone’s in. It’s free. The relief is palpable. The van is clean, warm, private – and monitored in case anything goes wrong. 

The van belongs to Peter Krykant, a former injecting drug user turned drug policy reformist who has transformed the vehicle into a safe consumption room for illicit drugs. One man and a van provide the only sterile, secure space in Scotland for drug users to inject, with help on hand should there be an overdose.

With drug-related deaths at an all-time high, earning Scotland the dubious title of the drug death capital of the world, Krykant’s cause is one of few to attract broad support from police, activists and politicians across the Scottish political spectrum – that includes First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who met with Krykant on 7 January to discuss new approaches to treating drug misuse. 

“I just seen that the conditions and the way we’re treating people are the same as they were 20 years ago, when I was in that situation,” says Krykant. “If I see somebody for two or three weeks in a row, then I don’t see them, I worry if they’re alive. When I’m not here, they’re injecting a lot of the time on their own and could be lying dead under the bridge.”

Inside Peter Krykant’s safe consumption room van. Photo: Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern

All the evidence is on Krykant’s side. Supervised drug consumption rooms already exist in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland. Not a single overdose death has ever been recorded at any of these sites.

Portugal, which 20 years ago was dubbed the heroin capital of Europe, decriminalised all drug use in 2001 to focus on safe consumption and rehabilitation. It now has one of the lowest drug death rates on the continent, alongside a dramatic drop in HIV and drug-related crime. Similar measures are in place in the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Switzerland, all of which boast drastically lower rates of drug deaths than the UK.

Meanwhile, the four countries with the worst death rates in Europe – Sweden, the UK, Ireland and Finland – have all refused to roll-out consumption rooms. 

In 2019, there were more than 1,200 drug-related deaths recorded in Scotland and 4,400 in England and Wales. Safe consumption rooms could have prevented many of these. Unfortunately for Krykant – and for the users whose lives depend on his van – policy-makers in Westminster don’t see things that way. 

In 2017, the Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership – a joint service between the NHS and Glasgow City Council – called for potentially life-saving drug consumption facilities and heroin-prescribed treatment. But the UK Home Office rejected this proposal. The following year, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of introducing safe consumption rooms, but lacking devolved powers over drugs policy, Holyrood could not implement the plans without Westminster’s blessing.

According to the law, anyone who attempts to create a safe consumption room can still be charged with a range of offences, including drug possession and supply. While some critics have suggested that Scotland’s chief prosecutor could simply direct courts not to prosecute, the Lord Advocate has repeatedly said that the current confines of the law would not allow this.

“It’s so frustrating, I’m furious about it,” says Alison Thewlis, Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow Central. “I think of all the people that have lost their lives in that time.”

Adding to the sense of frustration is, as Thewlis points out, that switching from a criminal justice to a health-based approach on drugs is something many Scottish politicians agree on. 

“There’s a lot of cross-party willingness to do something differently,” says Miles Briggs, the Scottish Conservative Party’s Chief Whip and a vocal supporter of Krykant’s safe consumption van.

Briggs believes that the SNP-led Scottish Government could be doing more to tackle drug deaths from a health perspective and is critical of cuts to drug and alcohol services, but agrees that a shift in how drug use is viewed is crucial at the top, too.

“I think England and Westminster should and could look at this in a more public health-focused prism,” he says. “I would like them to.”

It is hard to find anyone on the frontline of Scotland’s drugs crisis who doesn’t believe in adopting a harm-reduction strategy. While prosecuting organised crime gangs remains a priority, Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie, head of drug strategy, characterised Police Scotland’s approach as “rooted in public health”, including a new programme that will see frontline officers carry intranasal Naloxone sprays as a first aid emergency response to opioid overdose.

Other than an isolated charge for obstruction, Krykant says that his relationship with the police has been positive – a claim borne out by friendly interactions with officers in Glasgow and Edinburgh, one of whom even pointed out a better parking spot directly opposite the Holyrood Parliament building. 

“I know the attitude [in Police Scotland] would be of great relief if we didn’t have to deal with the drugs industry,” says Simon McLean, a retired Scottish detective with 40 years’ experience who now advocates for drug policy reform.

McLean says it has been obvious since the 1970s that drug laws based on criminalising users make no sense. He believes that, rather than protecting vulnerable people, arresting drug users and holding them for hours on end was only to extract intelligence – a flawed approach given that “they would tell you anything to get out” to find their next fix. 

“All our drug laws are based on ideology rather than evidence,” says Neil Woods, a former undercover drugs officer and now board member for Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). He believes that failing drug laws have created a “nightmarish mess” of mass imprisonment and rising deaths, while increasing the power of organised crime groups.

Focusing on drug busts and arrests, he says, creates vacuums that are instantly filled by other gangs, creating ever-escalating violence on the streets and fuelling a modern-day child slavery crisis. Rather than demanding genuine ways to save the lives of those addicted to drugs, the public are encouraged to cast moral judgment on those afflicted. “It’s the tyranny of the majority,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the majority of those addicted to heroin are trauma survivors in urgent need of mental health services. One study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that two-thirds of problematic drug users suffered from childhood abuse. Anecdotally, Briggs estimates that 80% of the injecting drug users he meets describe a childhood of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

The UK’s current drugs policy makes no attempt to address these underlying causes. With waiting times for NHS counselling often stretching into years, drug users are unlikely to be a priority.

Asked about the UK’s plans to combat record drug deaths, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse has said that the Government would “continue to support programmes that reduce the health-related harms of drugs such as tightening controls on dangerous substances and widening the availability of treatments which prevent overdose deaths”.

But leaked emails show that, despite cross-party support, Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected pleas by his own drugs tsar to invest £900 million in efforts to tackle rising drug deaths and drug-related crime, pledging just £80 million instead. In Scotland, which sees around a third of the number of annual drug deaths of England and Wales, Sturgeon has pledged £250 million.

It is clear that the current system isn’t working. And within Scottish politics and law enforcement, there are increasingly urgent calls for a new approach that will actually save lives – and many are keeping an open mind. Alongside harm reduction efforts, Thewlis personally believes that an even more “enlightened approach” involving decriminalisation isn’t “out of the bounds of possibility”.

But, until the UK Government prioritises evidence over ideology – or Scotland is able to roll-out its own policies in this area – thousands of the most vulnerable people in society will continue to die, in avoidable circumstances, every year.

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