Give free heroin to addicts in Glasgow, says Scots MP
Sunday 15 January 1995
William McKelvey, whose Scottish Affairs Select Committee investigation into drug abuse in Strathclyde last year revealed that there were more injecting drug-users in Glasgow than in any other city in Europe, argues that it is "time to think the unthinkable" on drugs.
Mr McKelvey, MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, says pharmaceutical heroin should, for the first time, be made legally available to addicts throughout a British city via the National Health Service.
Handing out pure, clean supplies of the drug in Glasgow would, he adds, help to stop junkies making lethal opiate cocktails, which have killed around 300 youngsters in the past three years alone.
His proposals have been criticised by Labour's home affairs spokesman, government ministers, the police and Greater Glasgow Health Board. But a number of drugs counsellors, health professionals and addicts welcomed the idea.
In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, Mr McKelvey, who visited cities in Europe and the United States while compiling the select committee's report, published last summer, said the "grave extent" of drug abuse in Glasgow meant the city was "ripe for a radical new initiative".
He pointed out that most of the addicts who had died in recent years had overdosed after mixing heroin with other drugs - in particular, sleeping tablets, painkillers and alcohol. Junkies make the high-strength opiate cocktails because the quality of heroin on Glasgow streets has declined sharply in recent years.
If clean, pure supplies of the drug were handed out by NHS doctors, Mr McKelvey said, addicts would stop mixing and the death rate would drop.
He explained: "In Britain the Government has acknowledged that people take drugs, and that addicts have special problems which require unusual solutions. The NHS has already met the needs of the drug-using population half-way in the interests of the public good by, for example, giving out free, clean needles to encourage safe injecting practices and reduce the level of HIV and hepatitis infection.
"In Glasgow, where heroin kills two young people on average each week, it is now time for the NHS to go the whole way. If pure, clean heroin was selectively decriminalised and supplied free to those addicts who wanted to kick their habit, it would drastically reduce the level of mixing and the death rate would decline. At the same time, drugs-related crime, which costs the city up to £1bn each year, would drop. Overall, Glasgow and its people would be better off."
Mr McKelvey welcomed the recent decision by Greater Glasgow Health Board to encourage GPs to prescribe the heroin substitute, methadone, to junkies. But he said many drug users rejected methadone because the synthetic opiate was itself highly addictive.
Under his Glasgow plan, pharmaceutical supplies of heroin would be made available to such addicts through clinics and health centres as part of a long-term treatment programme. Addicts would receive the drug only as part of a detoxification plan. No Glasgow doctors currently prescribe heroin to drug-users and Mr McKelvey's scheme would mean that junkies would be allowed legally to store and use the drug for the first time. Mr McKelvey said he would urge an incoming Labour government to approve a heroin programme in Glasgow.
But his proposal was angrily rejected by John McFall, Labour's Scottish home affairs spokesman, who said that Labour "opposed utterly any suggestion that Class A drugs should be made widely available to addicts".
Strathclyde Police described his idea as "immoral and unethical". Det Supt Kevin Orr, the head of the force's drugs squad, said: "Heroin condemns people to a life of misery and deprivation. When the day dawns that the police start handing out cash to bank robbers, I will give heroin to drug-users."
A spokesman for Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, said that although a small number of British doctors were licensed to prescribe heroin to addicts "in very special circumstances", the Government opposed any extension of the scheme across a major city like Glasgow. Greater Glasgow Health Board said the proposal was "risky and unworkable".
But David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drugs Forum, who advises the Government on drugs policy, welcomed the idea. He said: "There are many heroin-users who, for whatever reason, find it very difficult indeed to stop injecting. Methadone is taken orally and many addicts simply do not want to go on a methadone programme. We have to look closely at a policy of making injectibles available under strictly controlled circumstances so that we can offer drug-users every possible route out of addiction andhelp to end this on-going tragedy."
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