Author: Martin Powell, Head of Campaigns at Transform.
Once the tide turns, it can come in very fast – as anyone who knows the vast, flat expanse of sand (and, yes, mud) at Weston-super-Mare will know.
The recent announcement of a Home Office-licensed drug safety testing clinic in Weston suggests the tide is definitely turning.
“This is about saving lives,” said Roz Gittins, Addaction’s director of pharmacy. “We know people take drugs. We don’t have to condone it but nor should we judge people or bury our heads in the sand.
“Checking the content of drugs is a sensible and progressive way to do that. If people know what’s in something, they can be better informed about the potential harm of taking it.”
As Home Secretary, Theresa May was clearly opposed to drug safety testing. However, organisations like The Loop ran testing facilities at festivals and city centres anyway. Then the Government shifted to saying testing was a matter for local police and councils to decide on. Now it is going ahead (albeit as a pilot building on The Loop’s work at festivals) with formal Home Office licensing.
Medical cannabis followed a similar path. The Government initially denied any medical benefit. However, after cases such as that of Billy Caldwell forced the issue the Government moved to allow a regulated system, which is still developing (although far too slowly).
We are heading this way on drug diversion schemes, too. Here police divert people caught with drugs away from the criminal justice system and into treatment, education or other services. Not only are a growing number of police forces going down this road, but the Home Office and Ministry of Justice are showing interest – not surprisingly given the huge resource benefits for police forces (it takes 20 mins to divert someone versus 12 hours of police time to process a possession offence).
An area we are keen to see them move on next is Supervised Drug Consumption Rooms. The Government has long recognised the value of Heroin Assisted Treatment (though without following ACMD advice to fund it) but, despite the Home Office being ‘well aware of the potential health benefits of DCRs’ it remains implacably opposed to allowing local areas to pilot them.
If the Government recognises that drug safety testing can reduce harm, then why does it support sending users back out into the street to take the drugs they have just had tested – where they may die – instead of letting them use a clean, supervised consumption room?
Sadly, the grim driver for changing the Government’s position on Drug Consumption Rooms could be another tide that is coming in. One of drug-related deaths.
In England and Wales drug-related deaths have been at, or near, record levels for 5 years. But in Scotland things are even worse. 934 drug-related deaths were registered in Scotland in 2017, more than double the figure for 2007. With a population of just 5.3 million, that means that at 279 deaths per million people (age 16-64), Scotland’s drug death rate was the worst in Europe – around fifty times that of Portugal. Yet early reports suggest in 2018, the numbers dying rose by 25% or more – one report says 43% higher in Glasgow.
If, as seems likely, Scotland’s drug deaths pass 1000 in 2018, we hope the one silver lining will be that the UK Government finally allows Scotland (and everywhere else in the UK) to do what they need to, to stop the rising tide of drug-related deaths – including opening supervised drug consumption rooms.
Because otherwise, over the years to come many thousands of families will be left mourning their loved ones unnecessarily.