June 18, 2024

Glasgow, Scotland – Peter Krykant, a 46-year-old Scotsman, is a drug policy activist. More than 20 years ago, he was sleeping rough and injecting heroin and crack cocaine on a daily basis.

“When I was young and [drug] dependent and on the streets, there wasn’t any thoughts of any change,” Krykant told Al Jazeera.

“There were times when I was homeless, spat on and beaten up by people or arrested and taken to police cells for nothing more than how I looked at the time.”

Back then, there was nowhere in Scotland, or the rest of Britain, for Krykant and other drug users to consume in a safe and sterile environment.

But Glasgow, Scotland’s largest urban centre, will make history as the first city in the United Kingdom to host a pilot drug consumption room (DCR) if, as expected, city officials approve the scheme at a meeting on Wednesday.

The worst drug death rate

Scotland, the UK’s second largest constituent nation, which has had its own devolved parliament since 1999, has long had the worst drug death rate in Europe. Last year alone, 1,051 people died due to drug misuse.

The Scottish government, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), has been the focus of opposition attacks for many years concerning its record on drug deaths.

This month, however, Scotland’s chief law officer, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, effectively green-lighted the long-awaited pilot project after announcing it would “not be in the public interest to prosecute drug users for simple possession offences committed within a pilot safer drugs consumption facility”.

Despite drug policy being reserved for the Conservative Party-led British government at Westminster and despite staunch opposition from the UK Home Office to DCRs – which, supporters say, help to reduce drug overdoses – justice falls under the purview of the Scottish Parliament, and under Scotland’s separate legal system, Bain has overall control of prosecution policy.

London has resisted repeated calls by the SNP government in Edinburgh to devolve drug policy to Scotland.

But in the face of the lord advocate’s recent announcement, the UK government said it would “not intervene” to stop the implementation of the trial in Glasgow, where more than 400 drug users regularly inject in public in the city centre.

For Krykant, who ran his own unsanctioned DCR in Glasgow from September 2020 to May 2021 in a minibus and a converted ambulance, it was a particularly poignant development.

“It was very emotional for me,” the campaigner said of hearing the lord advocate’s words and the UK government’s acquiescence.

“But that doesn’t mean that I am going to stop campaigning because we need more than a single overdose prevention site in Glasgow.”

Further to go

Many campaigners warn that Scotland must go further than simply implementing DCRs.

“It’s essential to recognise that DCRs alone cannot comprehensively address Scotland’s complex drug crisis,” opined Annemarie Ward, CEO of Faces and Voices of Recovery UK.

“The roots of addiction are entwined with social determinants of health, economic disparities and trauma, which also demand attention. DCRs primarily focus on harm reduction, mitigating immediate risks, but they do not directly guide individuals towards recovery or abstinence from drug use.”

Ward, who was once herself drug dependent but who has not used for more than 25 years, told Al Jazeera that it was important to also make clear that “Scotland’s high number of drug-related deaths [were] not just a statistic”.

“Imagine a vibrant city like Glasgow, known for its rich culture and history but also struggling with a very obvious and unavoidable epidemic,” she explained. “All across the city, there are individuals and families grappling with the harsh realities of addiction. … It’s the story of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbours who have been swept away by the relentless grip of addiction.”

“It’s about shattered dreams, fractured communities and a healthcare system overwhelmed by the demand for treatment,” she said.

But in Scotland, which has long been polarised between supporters and opponents of Scottish independence, this issue has also fallen victim to political skirmishes over the constitution.

Despite Scotland’s previous lord advocate James Wolffe having rejected the idea of a DCR back in 2017, the Scottish Parliament’s anti-independence politicians seized on Bain’s announcement as proof that the nation’s current legislative framework was more than capable of tackling what many have called Scotland’s “drugs death shame”.

But others, such as Glasgow-based newspaper columnist and legal academic, Andrew Tickell, who blogs under “Lallands Peat Worrier”, maintain that a “constitutional dimension” to this issue was and remains “unavoidable”.

“The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is reserved to Westminster, but criminal justice and public health are broadly devolved,” Tickell told Al Jazeera. “This means [Scottish lawmakers] cannot unilaterally amend, change or disapply the 1971 act, but can spend money, for example, on drug treatment services, meaning [Edinburgh] does and does not have initiative in dealing with this public health issue.”

That said, by joining other nations such as Germany and Switzerland in operating DCRs, Scotland would face the tragic reality of its drugs crisis like never before.

“We saw people with wheelchairs having lost legs [to drug use],” Krykant recalled of his experiences running his own unsanctioned DCR in 2020 and 2021. “And people with rotting flesh where the smell was just overpowering.”

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