Consumption rooms: a legal place for illegal drugs?

Scotland approves UK's first trial facility where users can take drugs under medical supervision

Drug users in safe consumption room
The trial facility will be located in Glasgow, a city with the worst drug death rate in Europe
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The UK's first consumption room for illegal drugs has been given the go-ahead by Scotland's authorities.

The trial facility, which will allow users to take drugs hygienically and under medical supervision, will be located in Glasgow, a city that has "long had the worst drug death rate in Europe", where more than 400 drug users "regularly inject in public in the city centre", said Al Jazeera.

The proposal for a "safe" consumption room has been "discussed for years", said BBC News, but can now go ahead following a decision by Scotland's chief public prosecutor that "users would not be prosecuted for possessing illegal drugs while at the facility". The consumption room is "supported by Scottish National Party, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians", but they remain at odds with the UK Home Office, which said that "there is no safe way to take illegal drugs".

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'Public health emergency'

Numerous attempts to instigate similar schemes have been "blocked by the Home Office", said The Big Issue, despite a range of experts, including the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, backing the proposals. Campaigners say that consumption rooms can reduce overdose deaths, as well as drug-related litter.

In 2021, drug-related deaths hit record highs in Scotland, and despite more than £250 million invested in addiction services since, the death rate still remains "three times higher than 30 years ago".

The SNP MP for Glasgow Central, Alison Thewliss, said the UK government's war on drugs had been an "utterly humiliating failure". It should "finally accept" that its current strategy had created a "public health emergency", she said.

Consumption rooms created in other parts of the world had been a "resounding success", she wrote on the SNP website this month. Criminalising drug users had done "nothing but entrench a problem", and though safe consumption rooms would not be "a silver bullet" to Scotland's drug crisis, they would be the first step in a "new health-led approach to tackling drugs".

It's true that consumption rooms "do not directly guide individuals towards recovery or abstinence from drug use", Annemarie Ward, CEO of Faces and Voices of Recovery UK, told Al Jazeera. However, they are effective in "harm reduction" and "mitigating immediate risks". 

'Significant reservations'

Scotland Minister Alister Jack said ministers in Holyrood had "no more excuses" not to act on the drug crisis, after the UK government said it would not "intervene" in the consumption room trial. But, he added, the government's position remained that consumption rooms were not an "easy solution", and that authorities should continue to "fully enforce the law" on drug users. 

Malcolm Graham, head of local policing at Police Scotland, told the BBC that officers would "continue to crack down on drug dealers". 

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said there were still "significant reservations about the effectiveness" of consumption rooms, but that his party were happy for a "variety of potential solutions" to be considered. 

In a letter published in The Scotsman earlier this month, Richard Lucas of the Scottish Family Party said consumption rooms were the first step towards "the legalisation and social acceptance of dangerous addictive drugs". A safe facility "takes away a motivation to stop", he said, and would only lead to more drug abuse, addiction and deaths.

A similar project in Portugal was acclaimed by public officials, said Michael Simmons in The Spectator, but "the figures tell a different story". With nearly as many overdose deaths in 2021 as there were in 2001, it was "hardly a roaring success".

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