The Government’s official line on drug consumption rooms no longer states they are illegal, adding that it is up to local areas to consider what services would best meet their population needs.
Drug consumption rooms are facilities where illicit drugs can be consumed under the supervision of medical staff and have been proven to reduce overdoses, drug related deaths, risky injecting practices, drug litter, public injecting and improve engagement of hard to reach groups. In December 2016, the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs recommended that ‘consideration is given – by the governments of each UK country and by local commissioners of drug treatment services – to the potential to reduce DRDs [drug related deaths] and other harms through the provision of medically-supervised drug consumption clinics in localities with a high concentration of injecting drug use’.
The government has responded that they have ‘no plans to introduce drug consumption rooms’ but their new position may have made the initiative far more feasible than it once was. Up until now, the Government position has been that they have ‘no plans to allow drug consumption rooms, which [would break] laws whereby possession of controlled drugs is illegal’. In the eyes of the Government, any locality that did introduce a DCR would be breaking the law, leaving decision makers with the choice of being civilly disobedient or amending the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, neither being very attractive options to a local commissioner.
Scotland are in a unique position where they can make an application to their Lord Advocate, who can write a Letter of Comfort, which then amends prosecution policy. This would mean that service users and staff would not be arrested for using or permitting the use of illicit drugs. Glasgow are in the process of submitting such an application, with the aim of establishing a safer consumption room in the city centre. England and Wales do not have an equivalent legal officer who could make the same exemption, leaving aside uncomfortable questions of legality.
However, the Government’s new position no longer states that drug consumption rooms are illegal, adding ‘it is for local areas in the UK to consider, with those responsible for law enforcement, how best to deliver services to meet their local population needs’. This paves the way for a possible local accord between police and key stakeholders, much like is being seen with drug testing at festivals and the de facto decriminalisation of cannabis in certain localities.
Though this subtle shift in position has been a long time coming, with one in three European drug overdoses now being recorded in the UK, it is none the less a surprising in the wake of a rather lacklustre Drug Strategy. The ‘new’ strategy has been widely criticized for being distinctly unimaginative and simply a recycle of the 2010 Drug Strategy, but with less funding attached. The strategy also actively opposes decriminalisation, even though the decriminalisation of possession within a drug consumption room would be required for the facility to operate. Harm reduction is also only mentioned once in the strategy, and even then only in the context of smoking tobacco, rather than using illicit substances.
It is also puzzling why the Government’s new position statement on drug consumption rooms was not incorporated into the Drug Strategy when considering both announcements were released within less than two weeks of one another? And even more strangely, why has the Government’s official position been taken down, after being online for only one day?
Whatever the reason, the UK may now in a position where consideration of a drug consumption room is judged by local need, rather than the law.
Lizzie McCulloch is a Policy Advisor at Volteface – read her report ‘Black Sheep: An Investigation into Existing Support for Problematic Cannabis Use’. Tweets @mccullochlizzie1