THERE is no evidence that safer drug consumption rooms work, nor are they a “silver bullet” to fix Scotland’s drugs deaths problem, according to a senior adviser to the UK government.
Dame Carol Black, who was commissioned by the former Home Secretary Sajid Javid to conduct an independent review into drug misuse, said the row over consumption rooms could potentially act as a distraction from tackling the issue.
Speaking exclusively to The Herald on Sunday, Dame Carol also said the Scottish Government must not work in isolation to overcome the issue of soaring drugs deaths, and encouraged ministers to work with both Westminster and the Welsh administration to address the problem.
It comes after the latest statistics showed Scotland’s drugs death rate had risen for the seventh consecutive year in a row.
READ MORE: 1,339 Scots died in 2020 after drugs misuse
The National Records of Scotland data released on June 30 showed that 1,339 people died from drug misuse last year -the highest annual figure since records began in 1996, and a five per cent rise on the previous year.
The figures give Scotland the unwanted title of the drugs death capital of the UK and Europe, with three and a half times more people dying from drugs in Scotland than in the UK overall.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the number of deaths was “unacceptable” but insisted her Government “does not shirk the responsibility”.
She said she had appointed a dedicated drugs minister, Angela Constance MSP, and would “also continue to argue for reform of drugs law, which is not currently within our power.
The Scottish Government has also pledged to spend £250m over the next five years on tackling drug misuse, including spending £100m on rehabilitation places.
The row around drugs law has been largely focussed on the Scottish Government’s desire to introduce safer drug consumption rooms, where drug users could be supervised while injecting and treated immediately if they overdose.
The UK Government, and the Scottish Conservatives, oppose the move with the issue creating tension between both governments, and within Scottish politics.
Dame Carol, who concluded her major review for the UK Government in July, was not permitted to look at any legal changes needed to tackle drugs misuse as part of her work.
She did highlight the extent to which drugs were fuelling serious violence, how social media was being used to sell drugs to children and looked at improvements in treatment, recovery and prevention.
The former Royal College of Physicians president made more than 30 recommendations on what is needed to address the problem of rising drug use and death, including billions more in funding for services, training the next generation of experts in how to tackle addictions, and incentives for local authorities which succeed in bringing down the levels of drug misuse in their areas.
When asked about her views on the use of safer drug consumption rooms, Dame Carol said: “I am probably going to be limited in what I can say as it would require a change in the law, and I was absolutely not allowed to recommend anything that would need a change in the law, but I have never seen… I’ve never seen good research, controlled evidence, of how successful they are.
“What I have always said is I would want to give the local authorities the right to choose the evidence-based treatments, that really are sound in evidence, and then apply them to the population.”
Asked if she thought that there was a risk of the row over drug consumption rooms distracting from tackling the real causes of rising drug deaths, she said she was “quite pleased” that the facilities were not part of her review, adding: “I thought it would be a distraction.”
She said: “I really wanted to concentrate on what is it that you’ve got to put together for an addicted person to enable them to move on a journey of recovery.
“Even if you had drug consumption rooms, even if they were available, they would only ever be part of the story…
“it is very easy to think that there might be a silver bullet. But I don’t think there is a silver bullet.”
The former hospital consultant said there had to be a multi-pronged approach to helping drug users, which includes social work, housing support, employment opportunities and treatment for their addiction.
She explained: “You have got to get on top of people wanting these things, and one of the best ways to do it is to have a really good treatment and recovery service, with good mental health, housing and job opportunities.
“People have asked me whether you would get enough return on investment for these things.
“We calculated that for every pound invested, you get about £3.50 back, so it’s definitely a worthwhile investment.
“At the moment the UK Government spends around £19.2bn a year dealing with drug addiction and the problems it causes. That’s in the criminal justice system, through the courts, in benefits, social care and dealing with families, in health, you name it. It has to be cheaper to do something about this.”
In 2018, during a debate in the Commons on the consumption facilities, MP for Moray and (now) Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross MP said: “Instead of building drug consumption rooms and trying in vain to make addiction to these drugs safer, we should be redoubling our efforts to help people overcome their addictions altogether.”
Ronnie Cowan, SNP MP, was leading the debate and he insisted there was evidence to support the introduction of consumption rooms “at our fingertips”.
He said: “We have evidence from 10 other countries that DCRs work.
“The first supervised room was opened in Berne, Switzerland, in June 1986. Further such facilities were established in subsequent years…. A total of 78 drug consumption facilities currently operate in seven European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction-reporting countries.”
The debate has not been resolved, however, with the UK Government insisting that in order to open drug consumption rooms, a change in the law would be needed to essentially legalise drug use.
Mr Cowan challenged the Prime Minister directly in December, telling him he could “do something about it” and asking him to remove the “obstacles” at Westminster.
Mr Johnson insisted that “the majority of powers that are needed to tackle drugs crime are already vested with the devolved administration in Scotland, and I’m afraid the failures that he talks about are very largely down to them.”
Dame Carol said that the Scottish Government should work more closely with others around the UK to tackle the drugs crisis, adding: “ I would really love to see Scotland, England and Wales, work much more closely, or as closely together as they can on this because the problems are essentially the same.
“It just may be we don’t have quite so many popping of pills, as well as [taking] heroin and crack [cocaine] elsewhere, but people kill themselves with heroin overdosing… We have the same problems related to deprivation and poverty and poor education. We have the same problems of not sufficient high-quality treatment and recovery…The problems are the same.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Scotland suffers a terrible toll from drug deaths, leaving families grieving and in pain which is why we are focused on taking action to improve services and save lives through a range of methods.
“As part of our national mission to tackle the drug deaths emergency we’ve allocated an additional £250 million over the next five years to improve and increase access to services for people affected by drug addiction – including £100 million for residential rehabilitation to increase capacity and improve pathways to expand access to services for the most vulnerable.
“The Scottish Government is committed to implementing evidence-based interventions that we know work to save and protect the lives of those who struggle with drug addiction. There is strong evidence from other countries that safer drug consumption facilities help to prevent fatal overdoses and encourage people who use drugs to access longer-term help.
“We will continue with the detailed work and discussions to introduce safer drug consumption facilities in Scotland, as highlighted in the recent statement given by the Minister for Drugs Policy to Parliament.”