The new chair of the SNP’s drug deaths taskforce is confident legal barriers to setting up drug consumption rooms can be overcome as he insisted the facilities would not be a “free-for-all” or be a magnet for drug dealers after fears raised by a UK minister.
David Strang was speaking in response to UK Government Home Office and Justice Minister, Kit Malthouse, who told MSPs to stop focusing on drug consumption rooms being set up, appealing for a focus on better treatment options instead of “wrestling with these legal and practical difficulties”.
The Scottish Government is determined to allow safe consumption facilities to operate, despite the UK Government holding the legal powers to allow the policy to be implemented.
Evidence suggests that a safe space for those with drug addiction to consume drugs saves lives and can help point those to other support services.
Mr Malthouse appeared before a Holyrood committee set up to examine Scotland’s record number of drug deaths after 1,339 fatalities were confirmed in the latest annual statistics, the highest in Europe.
He claimed that evidence that drug consumption rooms can save lives is “quite limited”.
Mr Malthouse posed hypothetical questions including whether people travelling to use any drug consumption rooms could face arrest for possession of drugs and liability for those working at the facilities if there is a death.
He told MSPs that “Police Scotland may be put in a tricky position” in terms of who they prosecute if the policy is brought forward.
He said: “I think we have to be quite careful about the signal we send more widely on drugs and drugs consumption and whether it’s acceptable and whether we want to drive that number down.
“I think there would be practical difficulties that might make it tricky to do so from a legal point of view.
“Even if we were to say yes today, all of that work would take time.
“The nature of the problem is so urgent and so much more of a difference can be made by building that treatment system fast by rolling out these new interventions that I think we can overcome and reverse the trend much more quickly that way.”
Mr Strang became chair of the Scottish Government’s drug death taskforce last month when Professor Catriona Matheson quit the role after a row with SNP ministers over the need for their work being accelerated.
He told MSPs that “an urgent need to improve how we respond to this crisis” is needed.
Asked about specific details of any safer consumption rooms to be introduced, Mr Strang stressed the number required and where they could be “would need to be a matter for local communities”.
He said: ”It would be agreed in principle and clearly all the legalities and practicalities would need to be worked out at a national level, but I think it would be an issue that local authorities, local health boards, local police would have a view on and they would be the ones who decide.”
Asked about Mr Malthouse’s concerns over the complex nature of setting up drug consumption rooms, Mr Strang told MSPs that the Crown Office and Police Scotland “will come up with a working solution”.
He added that if drug dealers attempted to take advantage of any drug consumption facilities or tolerance zones, “the police would intervene”.
He said: “It’ not a free-for-all and encouragement for drug dealers.
“I think whatever practical objections or challenges there are – those are entirely able to be overcome. Doing so will save lives.”
Mr Strang was pressed over the UK Government minister warning that drug consumption rooms could encourage people to take drugs.
He said: “It reveals a mindset that drug use is about criminality. He was talking about encouraging crime and I think the argument for them is about tackling Scotland’s public health crisis.
“The emphasis on policing as being a route to tackling our public health crisis isn’t the right way forward. We’ve tried it for 50 years and this is where we are.”
SNP Drugs Policy Minister Angela Constance insisted that “there is no disputing evidence that safer drug consumption facilities can save lives”.
Asked if she was confident that plans for a pilot facility to be trialled in Glasgow will go ahead, Ms Constance said: “Yes I am.”
She added: “Work is going on with reference to a pilot for a safer drug consumption facility in Glasgow. A proposition has been brought forward by the health and social care partnership in Glasgow for that pilot. “There is very extensive work going on between the Crown Office, police, ourselves and our local partners in Glasgow.”
Pressed over Mr Malthouse’s opposition to the policy, Ms Constance said that “he sees more problems than I see”.
She added: “There are undoubtedly issues that need to be resolved and that’s what we are actively engaged with.”
The minister told MSPs that there were “three avenues to pursue” to introduce drug consumption facilities – either the UK Government could introduce legislation, the Tory Government could “devolve powers to Scotland” or the Scottish Government could “pursue what we can within our own powers to bring forward a proposition that is both clinically and legally safe”.
She added: “It has its difficulties but that work is progressing. We’re absolutely committed to doing everything we can, where possible, within out powers to implement evidence-based interventions that save lives.”