This week, as a break from our usual service, we’re going to talk about a policy where I think the Scottish Government has got it right: drug consumption rooms.
These facilities, colloquially known as “shooting galleries” because they are primarily targeted at heroin addicts, look set to be rolled out across Scotland after the first one, in Glasgow, got the go-ahead this week.
Whilst there may be constitutional wrangling down the line (the Daily Telegraph insists that they “are in breach of the law – whatever the Lord Advocate says”) ministers should give serious consideration to at least letting the experiment play out for a while. If there needs to be a harmonised British policy on this question, it may be that it should be this one.
The premise of safe consumption rooms is that it provides addicts with somewhere to consume their product (normally heroin), and facilities to do so safely. This has two upsides: it reduces the risk of disease and death arising from sharing needles or potentially overdosing a long way from medical help; and it moves such behaviour, and the detritus it leaves behind, off the streets.
Given that Scotland has by some margin the highest drugs deaths per capita in Europe, and has been struggling to get a grip on the problem for years, the former consideration ought to way heavily in the judgement of instinctive critics. However stern one’s opposition to illegal drugs, surely few in this country share the view of the Phillipines’ Rodrigo Duterte that it warrants a death sentence.
And if heroin use is going to persist – and all the crackdowns to date have not stamped it out – it is surely better to mitigate at least some of its potential fallout, by encouraging addicts to shoot up away from public places, and not leave used needles and other paraphernalia where people might find them.
It would also bring users to the attention of the authorities and into contact with support services, potentially allowing more addicts to be put on a path to recovery.
Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Because whilst turning a blind eye to people using illegal substances in specific locations might be wise, the Scottish National Party’s broader commitment to decriminalising drug possession is absolutely not.
Decriminalisation seems often to end up being adopted by people who assume it must be a reasonable position because it’s in the middle. They don’t want drugs sold in shops, like those crazy authoritarians. But they accept that the war on drugs has failed and cannot be won, unlike those hidebound authoritarians.
But in many ways, decriminalisation – removing criminal penalties for possessing illegal narcotics, but not legalising them – represents the worst of both worlds, for one simple reason: if effectively legalises demand whilst leaving supply in criminal hands.
Under the status quo, there is at least some deterrent effect from the fact of drugs being illegal, if not amongst regular uses then at least amongst the broader cloud of people who have the opportunity to start.
Legalisation, meanwhile, affords the opportunity not just to tax such products, but to regulate them to control for strength and impurities (many drugs deaths arise not directly from the drug theoretically being taken, but because people often don’t know the strength of what they’ve bought or what it has been cut with).
Drug consumption rooms are one example of where it could make sense to make (to borrow a phrase) a specific and limited exception to enforcement. Another is allowing nightclubs and festivals to host drug testing facilities, rather than obliging them to pretend that they could possibly be drugs-free environments.
However, ministers should give short shrift to the Scottish Government’s demands to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to deliver wholesale decriminalisation.
If they want to do something productive for our drugs regime, they should recognise that “drugs” covers a huge range of different substances, each with its own market and health risks, and review the nonsense that is the current list of Class A drugs, which lumps ecstasy together with heroin.