Glasgow is notorious for its long and complicated history of drug addiction. Once dubbed the UK’s heroin capital, the council have approved its first ‘self-injection room’ for drug users. Proponents of the scheme hope it will help clean up Glasgow’s streets and reduce crime. The war on drugs in Scotland is now over.
Whilst only provisionally accepted and subject to further investigation, the officially titled, ‘safer consumption facility’ will offer a safe and sterile environment in which to take heroin. Users will be allowed to inject or smoke their own drug stash under medical supervision. A pilot study will also see the most recidivist addicts offered medical grade heroin. It may represent a radical idea in the UK, but these facilities are common across Europe. Well-regarded as success stories, drug consumption rooms are presented as a cost-effective means to reduce drug mortality rates. For Glasgow, issues surrounding location and funding remain but the underlying philosophy has been approved, representing a fundamental fracture in the consensus for how drug misuse is tackled.
Drug-related deaths have now hit a record high in the city prompting the calls for change. Epic misuse of heroin has predictably led to a spiked increase in HIV and hepatitis C infection rates. The city’s drug problem is now becoming ever more visible to the wider public. The Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership (ADP) have estimated that around 500 people inject heroin on the streets regularly. This has increased the level of drug paraphernalia being found in public spaces, including used needles, representing a risk to the wider public as well as users themselves.
The war on drugs has been of the internecine variety. Whilst drug use and the crime it fuels have risen, the taxpayer foots the bill multiple times over. Police and council budgets are spent dealing with the local consequences of drug crime, our judicial and prison service dedicate a huge amount of time and money to prosecuting dealers and users and the NHS copes with the health repercussions of drug use and life-long infections. It is time to inject a dose of realism into the debate around drug use, making it less about the law and more about public health.
As the science behind addiction progresses, it is becoming evident that it is a disease and so must be treated, not punished. No single genetic factor can predispose a person to suffering from addiction, like many things it is a complex picture involving both our biology and environment. However, research has elucidated a familial component of addition, with 50% of the risk being genetic. Scientists have also reported how drugs rewire neural networks creating a physical change in the brains of users. Therefore, one can see how locking up drug users to cure the drug epidemic, will be as scientifically invalid as electroshock therapy was in curing homosexuality. When the medicalisation of addiction finally takes hold, drug decriminalisation will follow.
By pioneering a new approach, Glasgow could shed its former image and transform into the rehabilitation capital of the UK. Politicians and polite society may shy away from the issue of drug addiction, but disease and deprivation are being spread on an industrial scale. Lives and money have been lost due to political dogma. It is no longer morally acceptable to continue with the approach of criminalising addicts; these facilities present the first steps in a new direction.
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