Yousaf calls for ‘urgency’ on pilot drugs consumption room in Glasgow

The First Minister spoke after the Lord Advocate made clear it was ‘not in the public interest’ to prosecute users of such a facility with possession.

Katrine Bussey
Monday 11 September 2023 14:54 BST
Scotland must move with ‘urgency’ to pilot a safer drugs consumption room, Humza Yousaf said (Robert Perry/PA)
Scotland must move with ‘urgency’ to pilot a safer drugs consumption room, Humza Yousaf said (Robert Perry/PA)

A pilot drugs consumption room in Glasgow must be taken forward “with urgency”, Humza Yousaf has said, after a statement from Scotland’s Lord Advocate paved the way for such a facility to be established.

Dorothy Bain KC made clear that prosecuting the users of such a facility for simple drugs possession charges would “not be in the public interest”.

Her comments come in the wake of increasing calls for a safer drugs consumption facility to be established in Scotland’s largest city – although these have so far been rejected by the Home Office.

Ministers in Scotland said without support from the UK Government a drug consumption facility would be “limited”, but the First Minister stressed the need to “drive forward with a pilot with urgency” given Scotland’s high drug deaths rate.

I think it’s important to drive forward with a pilot with urgency, given of course the fact that drug deaths in Scotland are far too high

First Minister Humza Yousaf

The Scottish Government will now work with the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) to take forward the project.

The Lord Advocate’s statement came after consideration of a detailed proposal, drawn up by Glasgow HSCP and Police Scotland, with the backing of the Scottish Government.

Ms 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.”

Glasgow HSCP will now take forward plans to the Glasgow City Integration Joint Board, which directs both the local council and the health board, for  its approval.

The Lord Advocate, who is Scotland’s most senior prosecutor, said: “I have not been asked to sign off or approve any facility and it would not be appropriate for me to do so.

“However, prosecution policy is for me alone to set and this policy, and the consequences which flow from it, have been considered deeply and thoroughly.”

Ms Bain made clear that her statement that prosecution would not be in the public interest “will not extend to any criminal offences other than possession of controlled substances”, with the Lord Advocate insisting her stance “does not amount to an exclusion zone whereby a range of criminality is tolerated”.

Her comments come in the wake of MPs on Westminster’s Home Affairs Committee backing the establishment of a drugs consumption room in Glasgow.

This could allow those struggling with addiction to take drugs under supervision from medical professionals, who could intervene in the event of an overdose.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly called for Holyrood to be given the powers to set up a pilot project as part of its efforts to tackle drugs deaths north of the border, where the rate is the highest in Europe.

However, the UK Government has consistently rejected these pleas, with a Home Office spokesperson saying recently: “There is no safe way to take illegal drugs, which devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities, and we have no plans to consider this.”

But drugs policy minister Elena Whitham said it was “time to see this approach piloted in Scotland” – although she said a safe consumption room would be “limited to some extent” as a result of drugs laws being controlled by Westminster.

Mr Yousaf also said there would “still be limitations” with the facility, adding: “The best approach would still be for the UK Government to give approval to that pilot or devolve the power to us so that we can give approval.”

However, he welcomed the Lord Advocate’s statement – which he said had been made “independent of her role within government”, adding the Scottish Government would now work with the Glasgow HSCP on this pilot.

The Scottish First Minister added: “I think it’s important to drive forward with a pilot with urgency, given of course the fact that drug deaths in Scotland are far too high.”

Official figures from National Records of Scotland (NRS) showed there were a total of 1,051 deaths due to drug misuse in Scotland in 2022.

With a rate of 19.8 drug misuse deaths for every 100,000 people in 2022, it has the highest drug death rate in Europe.

Ms Whitham said the Lord Advocate’s statement meant “Glasgow authorities may now progress their proposal to set up a facility which can operate within the existing legal framework”.

She added: “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.”

Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie, of Police Scotland, said the force was “committed to working in partnership to reduce the harm associated with problematic substance use and addiction”.

He added: “Our approach to any initiative aimed at tackling these harms will be to establish how best policing can support it within the confines of the law.

“It is important to note that existing legislation will not be changing and, while we may take an overall supportive policing approach, police officers will still be bound by their legal duty to uphold the law and will not be able to simply ignore acts of criminality which they see occurring.”

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

While he said Tories at Holyrood “still have significant reservations about the effectiveness of consumption rooms”, Mr Ross said the SNP now had “no excuses not to take this action that they have been demanding for so long”.

The Conservative leader said: “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.”

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