Scottish drug activists urged to break law to save lives

A leading Canadian drug activist has urged Scots to engage in widespread civil disobedience and set up unsanctioned safe injection facilities to reduce the number of people dying of drug overdoses.

Vancouver-based broadcaster and researcher, Garth Mullins, made his call at the Scottish Drugs Forum conference on 31 August. He later told The Ferret there is a growing mood among Scottish activists to take matters into their own hands.

In July, figures revealed that 1,187 people died from drug overdoses across Scotland in 2018 and those working with drug users claim the rate has not slowed. In response there have been demands for emergency harm reduction measures to be introduced and The Ferret has reported calls for a public health emergency to be declared.

Government urged to declare public health emergency over drug deaths

There have been calls for the UK government to reform drug laws and Scotland to take unilateral action to address issues.

But the Home Office has consistently ruled out proposals for a city-centre safe consumption facility in Glasgow, first proposed in 2017 by the city’s Health and Social Care partnership. The initiative was later backed by the Scottish Government but in a legal judgement Lord Advocate James Wolffe found that a change in the law would be needed to guarantee those working in safe injecting sites would not be prosecuted.

Mullins, a former heroin user who now takes methadone, argued that only direct action would end the stalemate, and prevent unnecessary deaths.

He founded the Crackdown podcast, which aims to tell the stories of “the drug war, covered by drug users as war correspondents”. Mullins said he hoped Scotland could learn from the Canadian experience.

“We had an overdose crisis in the nineties and it took until 2003 to get safe injecting sites,” he added. “Even then the authorities fought to shut them down for over a decade.

“The only way we got there was by setting up illegal safe injection sites. In Scotland I think you have to do that same thing.”

Mullins said: “If the government in London won’t let people in Scotland set this up, there’s a good argument for independence. But all I can say is that in Canada we had the various levels of government point at each other and nothing was done. It’s a classic thing. Governments point at each other so no-one has to act.

“That’s when we had to step in with civil disobedience. And if we see drug treatment facilities here (in Scotland) it will be because people are willing to go to those lengths. There was definitely a sense in the room (at the conference) that people are now looking at that idea.”

Vancouver is home to North America’s oldest injection site. Mullins claims it would not have been possible without the interventions of Canadian activists who set-up illegal safe injection sites both in the east coast city and in Toronto.

Unsanctioned facilities popped up in unused shop fronts, or tents, offering clean needles, advice, support and naloxone, a drug which can reverse the effects of opiates and prevent deaths. Charities and church organisations lent their support.

Mullins claimed activists and drug users in Scotland should adopt the same approach.

While Canada saw record levels of deaths and HIV infections it also saw drug activism “catch fire” as users such as himself realised that “no-one was coming to save us, so we better save ourselves”, he added.

The first official facility – called Insite and run by Vancouver Coastal Health and Porland Hotel Society – opened in 2003 and for the first five years operated under a special exemption to Canadian drug laws.

Despite repeated challenges to its licence, the site remains operational. In 2017, it recorded 175,464 visits  by over 7000 people – an average of 415 injection room visits per day. It is claimed that despite over 2000 overdoses there were no fatalities due to intervention by medical staff.

However, Mullins also claimed that Canada had been slow to invest in further harm reduction measures and still criminalises users, unlike Portugal where those caught with small amounts for personal possession are diverted from the criminal justice system.

“I’m trying to show the mistakes we made in Canada too so that Scotland can try to avoid them,” he added.

“The police knew we what we were doing but we were engaging in classic civil disobedience. We had nurses, and activists and academics to study the impact, and lawyers who could advise us of our rights.

“There is nothing quite as successful as safe injection sites in terms of making sure that people don’t die. People would call the radio station and say: “Well, they don’t stop people taking drugs”. And no, they don’t. But they are not designed to. I don’t know of any government programme or police initiative that does that.”

Advocates of recovery approaches such as the Scottish Recovery Consortium, point out that treatment including psychological support and counselling are needed and that harm reduction alone is not the answer.

According to David Liddell, chief executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, Mullins was invited to speak at the conference in order to share insights from his “innovate” work. “In Canada there has been a political and legal struggle which mirrors some of what has happened in Scotland in terms of devolution of powers and a political football between national and provincial administrations,” Liddell said.

“There they short circuited this by providing services which were technically illegal but offered a safe place for people to witness injections and ensure people did not overdose. We do not have a view on this except that it seems obvious that when our own government has said that we are in a public health crisis people may decide to provide a service to protect people.”

He added: “The law that makes this illegal was framed to deal with historic issues. The great unknown is how the police and the Crown Office want to pursue someone with very different motivations – and perhaps ultimately how a jury may decide a case.

“Drug user activism is to be welcomed – there is so much to share and so many things that could be changed for the better.”

The Scottish Government continues to call for drug reform and has announced additional investment of £10 million in each of the next two years to tackle drug harm. The Scottish Affairs Committee in Westminster is currently holding an inquiry into problem drug use, which is due to conclude soon.

The Home Office insists that while any drug death is “a tragedy”, there is no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms and no plans to introduce them.

The SNP MP for Glasgow Central, Alison Thewliss, who has campaigned on the issue, said she fully appreciated the call by Mullins and the “frustration of everyone” at the intransigence of the UK government. “No one wants to stand by as people are dying,” she told The Ferret.

However, Thewliss added: “There remains a legal risk in setting up an unofficial site and anyone wanting to get involved in setting up such a site should fully appreciate that.”

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