Last week, the Scottish Parliament (with the exception of the Scottish Tories) voted to call on the UK Government to devolve the necessary powers to allow for the setting up of a Safe Injection Facility in Glasgow.
This facility is needed urgently to counter the high levels of harm currently being experienced by the estimated 400-500 individuals who are injecting publicly in the city centre and experiencing high levels of harm. In 2016 there were 170 Drug Related Deaths in Glasgow City Council, up from 157 the previous year.
I believe that problematic drug use is a public health issue and should be treated as such.
Many people using drugs on the streets are struggling with multiple, complex issues.
Safe injection facilities are about ensuring the dignity and safety of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and about saving lives—lives that are worth saving.
A news report last month on the topic of safe injection facilities shared the story of Jane, a 29-year-old woman from Glasgow who uses in the city centre. She woke from a fix to find a rat chewing through her arm. She spoke about wanting to die. I was genuinely shocked to hear about the reality of Jane’s life in 21st century Scotland.
It would seem logical that providing safe injection facilities would guard against such tragic situations and provide people with some safety and an opportunity for additional support and help. In such facilities, health professionals are always on hand to treat overdoses as well as offer health checks for any physical or mental health problems.
Safe injection facilities could also help to reverse the alarming drug-related HIV outbreak that we are currently seeing in Glasgow. Almost every new case involves a person who is addicted to heroin. Through providing a safe space to inject drugs, with clean needles that would be disposed of carefully, safe injection facilities would be an essential tool in the fight against HIV.
Treating people with dignity and respect is also a good first step towards tackling the profound issue of stigmatisation that surrounds addiction. Instead of leaving people to inject with dirty needles in alleyways, safe injection facilities treat people like human beings with a health problem, rather than as criminals.
In building relationships and trust with often hard-to-reach or easy-to-ignore people, safe injection facilities also increase the likelihood of people engaging with services that can help treat their addiction and aid their recovery.
There is great work going on in North Ayrshire through the peer mentoring approach that is being delivered by the North Ayrshire ADP in conjunction with NHS Health Scotland’s public health directorate. Through that initiative, peer support workers, who have lived experience of addiction, support individuals who are undertaking treatment for a blood-borne virus and identify those who are at risk.
That approach has enhanced the number of people being tested for blood-borne viruses and sexual health issues and increased the number of people commencing treatment. It has reached a number of marginalised individuals, particularly in homeless and prison settings.
One of the people who benefited from the service said:
“The Peer workers have given me confidence to deal with everyday life. I feel safe with the peers knowing they have lived experience; this gives me hope that I can also recover if I do what they did.”
This is a strong example of how finding different ways to engage people can have a transformational impact in helping them on the path to recovery.
A substantial number of those who die through drug abuse are not in contact with specialist services at the time of their death. In Ayrshire and Arran, that number is slightly higher than the national average of 36 per cent.
We must find new ways to reach those who are not in contact with services – and Safe Injection Facilities are one way to do that.
Safe injection facilities also have an important role to play in getting Scotland to a stage where it is no longer the drug-death capital of Europe. Although it is important to note that youth drug use is falling—with smoking, alcohol consumption and drug use among young people at record low levels—we cannot ignore Scotland’s rate of drug deaths.
The year 2016 saw the highest number of drug-related deaths recorded across the Ayrshire and Arran health board area since 2004, following a longer-term, more gradual upward trend. Sadly, that increase mirrors the picture across Scotland.
As is so often the case, however, although we clearly have the political will to introduce safe injection facilities in Scotland, we do not have the powers to do so.
The Scottish Government’s support for safe injection facilities is correct and welcome, but the power to act lies with the UK Government. I was proud to speak in last week’s debate and add my voice to those calling for the action that is desperately needed. I hope that the UK Government listens and acts.
Every drug death is an absolute tragedy, not just for the person involved and for their family and friends, but for our wider community. We all have to do everything in our power to change that.