heraldscotland.com, December 01, 2007
Scotland urged to 'be brave' and introduce drug consumption rooms
Call to modernise approach to heroin use
THE UK's former deputy drugs tsar Mike Trace has said Scotland needs to be more "brave and creative" and introduce controversial drug consumption rooms (DCRs) as part of its drug strategy.
Trace, now chief executive of the International Drug Policy Consortium, a non-governmental organisation, spoke to the Sunday Herald ahead of his first visit to Scotland. He will speak at the Scottish Drugs Forum's Annual General Meeting in Edinburgh on Tuesday about the implications of global drug policy on Scotland.
He said policy makers in developed Western countries such as England and Scotland "have to be much braver and more creative on following what would appear to make a bigger difference. They policy makers need to get off the fence."
He added: "If integrating our chaotic drugs users more in services with less stigma is the correct path, the sort of directions you should be going in is drug consumption rooms; whole community services that bring drugs users into the fold, instead of keeping them separate.
"We know that well-managed services of this type make a big difference and we don't implement them because we are concerned about looking like we are being too nice and liberal to drug users."
Trace has long been an advocate of harm-reduction services such as methadone prescriptions. He was deputy to the UK's first drug tsar, Keith Helliwell, and played a central role in the creation and implementation of the UK National Drug Strategy from 1997 to 2000. In his later role as head of demand reduction at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), he was forced to resign after just eight weeks over allegations he was promoting a liberal drugs policy against the wishes of US donors.
UNODC promotes abstinence and condemns member states for implementing harm-reduction strategies such as DCRs, which have also become known as "shooting galleries".
Trace said Scottish policy makers "shouldn't be afraid of the UN". "If Scotland really wanted to do drug consumption rooms and heroin prescribing, it will get a visit from the UN, but it will be able to point to other countries which set a precedent."
Germany, Switzerland and Holland have all introduced DCRs in recent years, and found the number of overdoses and drug-related deaths fell.
Trace said there are "major weaknesses and problems in the UN's position on this". He also criticised the UN for not modernising its position on drugs.
"The UN agencies have been very irresponsible in repeatedly responding to countries who have implemented harm-reduction measures by criticising them for being too liberal. That's where the issue really comes to roost for a country such as Scotland in their room for manoeuvre to experiment with things like consumption rooms and heroin prescription," he said.
In Scotland there has long been debate over the merits of abstinence programmes and harm-reduction services, but Trace said he was concerned that the voices in the debate ringing the loudest are from "dinosaurs".
"It's not inconceivable for ministers to say if nothing works forget it, arrest people if they are caught with drugs and if they get HIV infection it's their problem. That's what worries me about the current debate."
The Scottish Drugs Forum has advocated the use of DCRs and heroin prescription, but ministers have always rejected the idea.
Dave Liddell, director of SDF, said: "They need to be part of the provision but there's a bigger social issue around the fact that we have one of the biggest drug problems in Europe and that's because of the social problems."
He added: "I think people are very concerned with what the public will think. In many respects services are being planned on the basis of how it will look to the public, rather than the needs of the 50,000 heroin using population."
Prof Neil McKeganey, head of drugs misuse at Glasgow University, said Trace's opinion was "utterly inappropriate" and that DCRs would worsen the situation.
"To me it is an utterly inappropriate advice. It is simply wrong for our government to take on a service that would make drug use easier."
A Scottish government spokesman said: "There are currently no plans to introduce heroin consumption rooms in Scotland. The prescribing of heroin is clearly not something that can be undertaken lightly as there are complex issues about security of supplies, safety of patients and around dispensing arrangements."
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